The Best Time I Had Bed Bugs While Housesitting For Someone Else
I was very sure it was not bed bugs.
I was so, so sure.
In fact, I knew it was not bed bugs because I had done some extensive googling and cream buying and had gone to the doctor and decided what it really was was an obscure skin condition called Polymorphic Light Eruption.
Polymorphic Light Eruption is a skin rash caused by exposure to the sun affecting approximately 1 in 10 European women. Damn you, England, I thought to myself, damn you straight to hell. But secretly I was relieved.
My doctor was less convinced. “To be honest, it looks more like scabies or bed bugs or something,” she said. I snorted. To be fair, she had literally just googled “scabies rash” in front of me, so my smug doubt was, I felt, somewhat justified. The itchy, red bumps decorating my arms, back and chest were clearly PMLE (the abbreviation used by My Community), and all I needed to do was never go outside in the sun again, fine.
I went home from the doctor and tore the sheets off the bed. Eggs.
There were eggs in my bed. Actually, it was not my bed. It was my father’s bed. I was “housesitting” (read: squatting) while he and his girlfriend were in Italy for a month. The best deal in the world, I had thought. Free downtown apartment, free leftover food, free booze, free cable, free internet, free mother fricking bed bugs. I texted Italy.
“I think you have bed bugs.” I did not mention my recent trip to New York, the sketchy hotel in the bad neighbourhood or the morning I had woken up with a cockroach (?!) on my face (!!!!!!!). “That’s very gross. Call an exterminator.” Thanks, Dad.
It was looking for the exterminator that I found the forums. Readers who have experienced bed bugs (or BBs, as they are known in the forums) will know the ones I mean. A mother of three shares pictures of her children’s bite-ravaged arms. “We moved TWICE and they came with us both times. We were so careful,” she writes. “It’s been three years.” “I’ve thrown out every piece of furniture I own, and they’re still here. I think they live in the walls,” a 43 year-old bachelor adds. “IM GOING CRAZEYYYY,” says someone else. “I BURNED MY MATTRESS IN THE STREET AND WOKE UP COVERD IN BUGGGGSS”
There are pages and pages of these. Threads about getting rid of BBs yourself (do not do this), about which companies run scams (many), about little traps you can make (your bed becomes an “island” if you put tuna cans full of dish soap on all the legs and pull it into the centre of your room). Hundreds of replies, arguments, words of encouragement. People post photos of scraps — shed casings?? — of streaked mattresses, of the worst infestations they’ve ever seen. It is a nightmare, a place where paranoia breeds and the situation feels permanent, like we are in the trenches of a war against a tiny, terrible enemy who predates us and will exist long after we are gone.
There are few stories of victory on the forums. People desperate enough to participate in the first place are in the middle of a kind of bed bug-induced psychotic episode brought on by prolonged fighting with these notoriously resilient, incredibly gross creatures. Those who deal with their bed bug problem quickly and with relative ease do not need the forums. “I will not be like these people,” I said to myself, scratching my swollen wrists, clawing at my bite-riddled back. I googled Polymorphic Light Eruption one more time, and then “Bed Bug Exterminator Toronto Best One.” I was going to be fine.
And for the first few days I was. I put everything in garbage bags, then the dryer, then new garbage bags. I calmly did twenty six loads of laundry. I calmly placed the books I was reading at bedtime in the freezer. I calmly told a few friends they were showing their “bug-free privilege” for not wanting me to come over. I took fresh clothes out of a Ziplock bag and went to sleep at my boyfriend’s house. I wore socks and long sleeves in the mid-July heat.
When I slept at my boyfriend’s, I would come downstairs wild-eyed, holding a pathetic little cluster of toe nail clippings, seeds, and skin flakes I’d collected from the mattress, convinced I’d brought the bugs to his house too. He tried to brush my neck to calm me and I screamed, slapping his hand like it was sucking my blood. In short, I was Grade A bonkers.
I am an incredible control freak when it comes to my own body. When I feel an illness coming on, recognize a new source of pain, or itch — -any sensation, really — -I become anxious and fixate on it until I figure out what’s wrong. As soon as I know — -whether it’s menstrual cramps, pneumonia, a sprained wrist, a UTI — -I start to feel better. I can feel the headache dissipating as I open the bottle of Advil. I did not feel better after making the exterminator appointment.
Avery came on a Monday. He was unreasonably handsome, I felt, like a sexy saviour mirage I’d conjured in the disgusting desert of this bug problem. “The infestation isn’t too bad,” he said. Maybe I was in love with him. “If you stay in the bed as blood bait, the new ones that hatch will cross the poison and die within a few days. I can come back and check again in a few weeks to make sure the next cycle hasn’t stayed alive. In the meantime, keep putting things in the dryer and sleeping in the bed to draw them out.” I remember feeling immediately betrayed, as though he was too visually appealing to say something so viscerally disgusting.
Keep sleeping in the bed as “blood bait.” Make sure the next “cycle” hasn’t stayed alive. “The new ones that hatch.” The thing about bed bugs is that every single aspect of their reality is repulsive. One of the forums listed my father’s apartment building as notorious for bed bugs. “Too many people coming and going,” it said. “That place is a nest.”
I really and truly cracked when my father started sending pictures of Italian swimming pools over our family’s What’s App group. My youngest sister, then travelling in Australia, sent some kind of beach vista. My twin contributed a B.C. rainbow, resplendent over the peaks of Whistler Blackcomb. I sent them a picture of a bloodied bag of bugs and eggs and headed back to the forums.
At this point I was sleeping during the day, on the sofa (you are not supposed to do this), and sitting awake in the bed at night, dutiful blood bait. I had isolated the bed and was keeping any “evidence” I found in the aforementioned bag which contained exactly two bed bugs at different stages of development, a variety of shed egg casings, some miscellaneous specks and other weirdness I’d found on my nightly searches with an ultra-bright flashlight and increasingly wild eyes.The bag and the headboard of the bed were both lightly smeared with my blood. During these nights I wandered the apartment like Lady Macbeth, wringing my hands and muttering to myself. I read the forums and watched Orange Is The New Black and watched the sunrises, which seemed bleak every morning, regardless of their height-of-summer grandeur.
As the days went on, I began to find dead bugs around the apartment. I found one by a vent. My boyfriend pointed one out by the sink in the bathroom. They were gross, sure, but they were dead. Lady Macbeth began to calm. I called sweet Avery the sweet exterminator, and he said it sounded like they were gone. All I could do was keep an eye out and stay vigilant. I started googling “Bed Bugs Exterminated One Go Success?” and feeling more optimistic. I did not stop ripping apart my boyfriend’s bed and proffering my little bundles of scraps to him while crying, but strides were being made.
When my father and his girlfriend came home from Europe a week or so later, I showed them my system: clothes in the dryer, then in sealed outfit bags; pillows, sheets, etc., dried and sealed in garbage bags; books in the freezer, shoes too. They seemed amused. “When can I get the pillows out of the bags?” Dad asked. “Six months if you want to be sure,” I said. “I’ve read some stuff online…”
For some reason no one was interested in hearing about the forums. It’s been two years and my father says they’ve never seen a single bug, dead or alive, in the apartment. I moved into my own apartment, inspected it ruthlessly, and have never seen another bed bug either. It’s all fine now.
It was a slower process than that, really: I took my bed apart nightly for weeks afterwards, and still get anxious about staying in hotels, sketchy or otherwise. But I don’t wake up worried I’m getting crawled on. I go to my Dad’s apartment for dinner. I recently took the brave but necessary step of eating in bed again. This means seeds, seeds, everywhere, which can look a LOT like bed bug eggs if you are tired and/or crazy and/or expecting a resurgence at literally any moment, probably for the rest of your life, but if those fuckers can eat in my bed, dammit so can I.
Once in a while I still check into the forums. I see my wild bug-induced lunacy there and I laugh and get scared and fall asleep. Rest well, bbs.
Monica Heisey is a writer and comedian from Toronto. Her work has appeared in The Toast, The Cut, Rookie, Gawker, VICE, Playboy, and many other web and print publications. Her first book, I Can’t Believe It’s Not Better, comes out Spring 2015. Writing about herself in the third person is a nightmare.