Tuesday 24 September 2019

Chainsaws, fire and paranoia: My total bedbug meltdown

It took me ages to realize my place was infested. That’s when I learned of the life-altering measures required to fix the problem

In these weird political times, I hear a lot of people saying, “Can things get any worse?” I usually scoff and tell them “Yes. Yes they can.” Things can always get worse, and I’ve learned this lesson the hard way – from bedbugs.

For the past 10 years I’ve produced a podcast called RISK!, where people tell true stories too intense or explicit for broadcast radio. Some are a laugh riot, but others keep me up at night.

Over time, I began to notice that the scarier stories on the show have an uncanny tendency to include these insect parasites. It’s typical of someone to start with a line like, “The summer my mom died, my career collapsed. But the worst part was getting bedbugs.”

This recurring theme got me worried – and they say worrying is like praying for what you fear.

I’m a kinky polyamorous gay man, so it could have been that sleeping around was how I got bedbugs in the first place. But having more than one partner was also how I figured out the insects were after me.
 ‘But this is like crabs, right? I’ve survived crabs before!’ Photograph: animatedfunk/Getty Images

Several years ago, I woke up in my bed next to my friend Kai, a sculptor I was sleeping with. I had just finished making a pot of coffee in the kitchen when he stumbled in, looking shook.

“See these marks on me? What are they?” Small red dots ran down his torso. I went numb with deja vu. A week prior, another fella I was dating complained about the same marks, but I’d assumed a mosquito was to blame.

“Fuck!” I said. “I hope this isn’t what I think it is!”

I ran back to the bedroom and yanked up the mattress to peek at the box spring. There it was. A bunch of little black stains, like someone had taken a thin Sharpie and dotted the fabric. Then I looked a little closer and saw something worse: something brown, oval, and moving. I trapped it on a little piece of masking tape and started Googling to find out what it was.

Kai fled the scene, while I fell into the Heart of Darkness of Google spirals. I learned that the little black dots on the fabric were feces and that the contents of those droppings were mostly my own blood. Turns out, not everyone will have a reaction to a bedbug bite, so this had gone on for some time without my knowing. Two people that sleep in the same bed can be bitten by bugs and one might break out with red marks while the other might not.

That’s why that bug I found was so big. He’d been feasting on me for weeks but my skin hadn’t shown it. Did you know bedbugs inject an anesthetic into you, a numbing chemical, so when they do start sucking your blood, you don’t know?

Here’s another fun fact: we have no idea what, if any, purpose bedbugs serve in the ecosystem.

As I was going all hot and cold with panic, I remember saying out loud, “But this is like crabs, right? I’ve survived crabs before!” Gentle reader, they’re not. The natural habitat of pubic lice is pubic hair, which is a thing that grew on people’s bodies till the 1990s. But bedbugs can hide in mirrors, bookshelves, wall units, books, computers, phones, clocks, remote controls and, most importantly, walls.

I was turning up so much contradictory information that I finally ran to Barnes & Noble to pick up a “definitive” tome called The Bed Bug Survival Guide, only to find mixed messages there too. The notes I took that day are filled with insane stuff like this: “For a few months after spotting bugs, you should require all guests to your home to strip nude in the hall before entering your premises and to keep their clothes quarantined in garbage bags away from the walls in the hall.”

I have a reputation for being as kinky as they come, but even I couldn’t get away with that sort of hospitality. Another one was: “For the rest of your life, if you absolutely must enter a hotel room, keep everything you own in the bathtub!” I remember one source saying, “Vacuum vacuum vacuum! All couches, drapes, and table cloths!” Then a few pages later, it said to be careful about vacuuming because “that’s a surefire way to spread eggs into other parts of the home!”

I’m a recovering Catholic, so I couldn’t help but think: “I’m being punished. I must have brought this plague on myself!” I spent the rest of the day texting any guy I’d slept with in months with variations of “Honey! Check your stuff because I might have given you something!” You won’t find that in How to Win Friends and Influence People.

As I rifled through contacts, I began obsessing over one incident a couple months past. I met this guy on a BDSM website. I said we could play at my place, but he said, “Wouldn’t it be kinky if we were to have sex in this sleazy pay-by-the-hour motel I heard about in the shadiest part of Queens?” All kink play requires negotiation. This is where I should have said to myself, “Am I agreeing this because it’s hot to me too, or just because he has a sweet booty?” It was the booty.

Lucky for him, I guess, the motel was just as sordid as he’d said. Ancient straight porn played on the TV. Everything looked and smelled like it had been the same since 1974. I’d left my backpack at the foot of the bed. Had the bag become like a Trojan horse for transferring tiny motel residents into my home? Probably not. I’m always traveling for work, so any of a half-dozen other hotels might have been the culprit. Still, this paragraph made me feel itchier than the rest.

But there was also that whole thing about bedbugs going through walls. Milos, my landlord, was a big-bellied man, always wearing flashy suits and chomping on cigars. He stared menacingly at passersby from his window. Everyone in the building knew Milos spent a fortune on his own ground floor apartment, and peanuts on ours above. When I told him this situation needed fixing, he charitably replied that it was my problem.

I ended up paying a bargain-rate exterminator $500 for a fumigation. When he was finished, he said, “That’ll do it!” It didn’t. A month later, I found bugs in the living room. They were like an army that had set up camp several miles from their target. Then the couple across the hall from me revealed they had bugs too. We teamed up to implore the landlord to treat the whole building. But Milos would not relent. I paid Miguel another $500 for an extermination, and so did the folks across the hall. “That’ll do it!” Miguel told us. It didn’t.

One day I was recording my podcast in the sound booth, this tiny wooden box I had built off the side of my kitchen. The walls of it were covered in sound-proofing foam. I’d just finished whining into the mic about how exhausted I was from my paranoia that the bugs were all around me now. Suddenly, I became like the guy in the movies looking for the monster, who whispers: “He’s right behind me, isn’t he?” I got the idea to peel back one of the panels of sound proofing-foam glued to the walls of the booth. The whole booth was crawling with them.

That became Chainsaw Day. That’s what I call it now. Anyone who knows me will tell you that I’m so clumsy, I should be nowhere near the driving wheel of a vehicle or the on-button of a power tool. But that day, I rushed to the hardware store, rented a chainsaw, and decimated every piece of furniture I owned. And I kept finding bugs! It’s important to remind ourselves what we’re grateful for. Looking back at Chainsaw Day, I’m grateful I still have limbs. But heat is another way to kill them, so I lost piles of books by accidentally setting them all on fire in the oven. Who really knows the right temperature for cooking books?

I couldn’t afford to move, but decided I had to.

The day I finally found a new place to move into – almost four months after I’d found that first bug – that was the day Milos began acting like a landlord should. The woman living downstairs from me told him she had bugs now too, and Milos finally realized the army was marching his way. He had the whole building exterminated.

But two weeks later, right before moving day, I did something bad, and I’m here to tell you, I don’t regret it. I lied. I insisted to Milos that I’d found one more bug! I hadn’t. I hadn’t seen a bug in weeks. But I desperately wanted a fourth extermination, and now Milos was just as paranoid as I. He couldn’t help but agree to foot the bill. The big lie was my way of being quadruply sure that before I loaded anything I owned on to a U-Haul to flee Brooklyn, I’d really and truly be moving bug free.

Then again, maybe I’ve been fooling myself these past five years. You never can be sure what’s lurking in the walls of those U-Hauls.

They’re right behind me, aren’t they?

(Source: The Guardian)

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