On our bedbug anniversary, we got bedbugs again

A colorful cartoon bed bug crawls across the image. Illustration.

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.

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.

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.”

I vowed that in the future, everything I bought would be hard
and sterile and utterly poreless.

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.

Source: FS – NYC Real Estate
On our bedbug anniversary, we got bedbugs again