Bedbug Chronicles 5

Yes, we realize there are potential health consequences to spraying the entire apartment, but we are young and strong. In a fight against cancer or sterility, we might come out on top. We are not so sure against the bedbugs.
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Day 27

The score so far is 0-0. The bedbugs have not forced us out, but I am pretty sure they too are still here.

I have little faith that our second spraying has gone any better than the first. The exterminator who came in seemed stunned by my hope that he would spray everything. Websites that deal with this - being one of the best - will tell you that the best idea where bedbugs, or really any pest, is concerned is to 'spend more time with a flashlight than a sprayer.' That is: isolate the problem as much as possible; insecticides hurt people, so you want to target the bugs.

I see the wisdom in this, no question. I even admire people so patient and cool-headed that they could honestly advocate restraint while being devoured nightly by six-legged horrors that look like creatures born of some disturbed ten-year-old's nightmare. We are not those people.

Our strategy is more Kamikaze: if we could eat enough rat poison to make ourselves toxic to bedbugs, we would seriously consider it. When the exterminator came today for a second visit, we demanded he spray liberally: mattress, check; armoire, check, fresh produce... sure, why not?

Yes, we realize there are potential health consequences, but we are young and strong. In a fight against cancer or sterility, we might come out on top. We are not so sure against the bedbugs.

Day 29

I have been accused of occasionally drawing overlarge, inappropriate metaphors. The habit started early. I first compared someone to Hitler in fourth grade. I am duly ashamed. It's a tactic which is juvenile, hyperbolic, and unworthy of anyone not currently involved in a political campaign.

Unfortunately, I didn't kick the habit. At twelve, I compared myself to Ghandi because I didn't fight back when some class bullies beat the tar out of me. "Passive civil resistance," I told my friends. They pointed out that my hands had been pinned to the ground and that I apparently screamed "I'm going to kill you" multiple times. "Ghandi might have done that," I thought.

In high school I developed some self control. When someone said my Op-Ed in the school paper was inappropriate, I stifled my instinct for comparison ("You know who would agree? Stalin and Pol Pot... and probably Dracula") and responded more traditionally ("Were you dropped as a child or are you just naturally stupid?").

Unfortunately, the bedbugs have caused a regression. Several times in the past week, I have found myself - inadvertently and before you object, yes, inappropriately - comparing bedbugs to AIDS. It slips out. And, to be fair, the ignorance people have towards these pests is not dissimilar. Here's how:

The first comparison is what I like to call the "Jacob Zuma." Zuma, for those who are not following the current state of South Africa's ANC political party, is the deputy president of his party and a possible contender for the next presidency of South Africa. For a man living in a country second only to Botswana in the percentage of HIV positive citizens, he demonstrates a truly remarkable ignorance of the virus. Zuma has refused to be tested for HIV, but assures the public that he is in no danger of infection because he took a shower after he had unprotected sex with an HIV positive woman.

The bedbug equivalent is the person who believes that vacuuming an apartment or washing the floors will kill off the pests. It's a dangerous and stupid illusion with HIV and an unfortunate one with bedbugs. At the end of the day, your chances of bedbugs are pretty much the same regardless of how filthy or clean your apartment is.

The second comparison is to those who overly fear the spread of bedbugs. I met someone at a bar the other day who described his initial paranoid reaction to AIDS: "I wouldn't even drink a beer unless I opened the bottle myself," he said. "Until about 1992, I just figured better safe than sorry."

Cue hundreds of AIDS awareness commercials pointing out that a hug won't cause infection.

Of course, you could get bedbugs from a hug. It's not likely, but it could happen. And while the consequences are not nearly so dire, it becomes a little hard to persuade people to associate with you. There are no commercials telling people how you can or cannot get bedbugs, probably because no one is really sure how to get them or avoid them. There are apocryphal stories of people who brushed up against a stranger in the subway and brought a bug home and of people who brought a bedbug with them to a dinner party and infested a friend's house. As far as I can tell, the primary ways they are passed along is through furniture, through the walls of an apartment, or through luggage that you leave near your bed when traveling. But because the infestations are frequently unnoticeable for a few months, no one knows how he acquired the pests. We are at the 'open your own beer' stage of bedbug knowledge.

Moreover, however careful I may be, it's possible someone I know will get them and I will be blamed. My strategy to avoid total social isolation has been to talk about the size of bedbugs. I figure that if someone knows they are visible, she will feel reassured that they can be found and killed.

"They are big," I'll say. "I mean, they're like ticks. You can see them. They are big."

Of course, talking about how large these hideous parasites are is probably not entirely reassuring either.

So here's a bit of advice to friends of bedbug victims: Don't pull a Zuma and underestimate the threat, but also don't cut off all social contact. Maybe invite the victim over for dinner... though probably best to stay away from your own home.

Day 32

We have spotted more bugs. The first two sprayings have failed. We are moving on to number three. The exterminator will be here tomorrow morning and we have prepared for spraying yet again. Katherine announced that she had prepared for the spraying of her room and then followed that announcement with another: "I'm moving back to Wyoming," she said.

The decision was not, it turns out, entirely based upon the bugs. She had been itching for the country - no pun intended - for some time and the psychological and physical strain of packing up all her belongings just pushed forward her inevitable departure by a few weeks or months.

Still, misery loves company and one fewer person to pay rent and endure this with us is a real shame.

To recap: Bedbugs 1, Us 0.