On our bedbug anniversary, we got bedbugs again
When you have bedbugs, your first impulse is to pick up and move—to a new apartment, to a ranch in Montana to start a new life—but this is the last thing you are supposed to do
A bedbug odyssey begins with denial. One ankle blemish could be anything: a mosquito bite, irritation from a sandal clasp. Even two could be innocuous. But three in a line—that was harder to refute. Then I caught one crossing our duvet in broad daylight. I nudged it into a sealable container, and later, panicky and irrational, threw the entire container away. We had bedbugs.
We traced them to our downstairs neighbors, who got them first and tried to self-treat with a bug bomb. Their bugs fled into the walls, tracked upward to the closest source of heat, and became our bugs. For my boyfriend, a native New Yorker, it was the culmination of a lifetime of paranoia. “It finally happened,” he kept saying. His constant vigilance—refusing secondhand furniture, never sitting on a subway bench—hadn’t protected him, and he felt betrayed.
Treatment started with the bed. We bought a mattress cover (expensive, like everything to do with bedbug treatment) to seal the bugs inside, where eventually they would starve and die. We emptied the closet and moved out most of the furniture. Our bedroom, then: empty and echoing, and at its center the bed, dotted with trapped bugs.
When you have bedbugs, your first impulse is to pick up and move—to a hotel for the night, to a new apartment, to a ranch in Montana to start a new life—but this is the last thing you are supposed to do. Best to stay in place and keep your belongings concentrated to minimize spreading. So you sleep on a bed you mistrust, in an apartment you mistrust, above neighbors upon whom you’ve sworn vengeance.
A home in bedbug treatment is transformed. We sealed our clothes in contractor bags and piled them high in the living room. Bags, belts, shoes, curtains, rugs: everything soft was suspect. I vowed that in the future, everything I bought would be hard and sterile and utterly poreless. Some items could be washed and dried on high heat, but precious things, boots and beloved leather jackets and delicate dresses, were borne away by the man from the heat-treatment facility with all the sympathy and discretion of a funeral director. After treatment, our clothes lived in clear plastic bags that lined the perimeter of our apartment. We fished our outfits from the bags, our shoes from plastic bins. We dressed in the living room, where there was no mirror. Once I went to work with a button-down blouse on inside out.
We vacuumed—we were never not vacuuming—and laundered and sprayed and threw away more than we probably had to. It took months, but the exterminator eventually okayed us. The bugs were gone; we could live like people again. Cautiously, we refilled the closets. I started making bug jokes. “Not funny yet,” my boyfriend told me.
A year rolled by. We got engaged. “It was a stressful year,” we said. “We wanted to do something joyful.”
Then we got bedbugs again.
If the first time felt like a tragedy, the second time was a farce. It was too stupid that we had them again, exactly a year after the first time. Where could they have come from? An unproductive question, but we asked anyway. The exterminator rattled off options: an Uber, a hotel, a movie theater, a plane, an office, a friend’s apartment. The real question: Where could you not get bedbugs in New York? After an hour or so of mute horror, we laughed and started again. We bagged our clothes and called the man from the heat-treatment facility—“I’m terribly sorry,” he said, so gravely it started us laughing all over again.
People would ask innocuous questions: When’s the wedding date? Have you started planning? The answer, that our all-consuming priority was bug murder, was too ludicrous to give. “How’s engaged life?” a friend texted. I peeked around the mountain of bags to where my fiancé was vacuuming, blank-faced. “Pretty great,” I replied. What else could I say?
I thought engagement might feel like our transition into true adulthood, a future with joint bank accounts and life insurance and the strong possibility that somebody would finally gift us a Roomba. Instead, we were reliving last year’s problems with last year’s cast of characters: the exterminator, the heat-treatment guy, our shiftless management company. We couldn’t leave the apartment, couldn’t toss the mattress. Everything was the same, so we would have to be different. We’d have to rise to pretty great.
Pretty great required a different approach. The first time we had bedbugs, we blundered from task to task, trying to rush everything back to normal. This time, we wouldn’t try to do everything at once, and we’d be mindful of burnout. We traded off: If I was feeling particularly sanguine about the bug situation, I could be the one to pick up more vacuum filters or shoulder another load down to the basement laundry. He was welcome to step into the closet (it was empty, after all) and scream.
We got better at communicating, but we also learned the power of saying nothing. He was tactfully silent while I obsessively changed the sheets; I didn’t mention how often he was emailing the exterminator. We didn’t question the merits of these coping methods (because we were too tired), but we also didn’t get drawn into them (because we were too tired). “Go for it!” we’d tell each other, code for “You have my support, but I will be taking a nap.”
This attitude extended to the apartment. We made peace with our mountain of plastic bins and bags. In fact, once the bugs were gone, it didn’t seem right to put everything back.
We got engaged to mark a transition, but it was the second coming of the bugs that forced us to make real changes. For years we put off moving apartments, daunted by the investment and effort of relocating. Now it seemed urgent (logical or not, we couldn’t trust this apartment anymore) and even easy—after all, most of our stuff was already packed. We also had to rethink our bedroom. Even in the pre-bug days it was an afterthought—a half-office, half-bedroom hodgepodge, our best furniture and art reserved for other rooms. Having lost one bedroom as a sanctuary, we’d give the next one a little more respect. From there, it became easy to imagine more seismic changes, like leaving New York altogether.
Did the bedbugs chase us out of town? Maybe, but we were ready to go. New jobs, a new city: This was the transition we needed to make. The wedding could wait.
One of these days, we’ll figure out how to get married—maybe in a park or a winery or a hotel packed with family and friends, or maybe just the two of us, hand in hand at the courthouse, snug (is it funny yet?) as two little bugs.
Tina Morgan is a Portland-based writer with a day job in brand.
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