Bedbugs began to invade my imagination two months after my daughter was born. I was readying to attend a conference when a friend casually mentioned the hotel was featured on the Bedbug Registry. Bedbug Registry? What was that? I headed to the website and started rooting around. I researched bedbugs. And that was when life would be divided in half–before my daughter was born when bedbugs did not exist for me and after the birth of my daughter when bedbugs were everywhere.
Granted, I was poised for calamity. As a hypochondriac daughter of a doctor, I have been anticipating diseases since I was 8 years old when decided I had cystic fibrosis. (That would be followed by brain cancer, Lou Gehrig’s disease, multiple sclerosis, mad cow disease, and schizophrenia). All that pent-up anxiety was lying patiently dormant until I gave birth to my daughter in the dead of winter. And then, as if a portal had been opened, all the fears seeped out at once.
Typical Google searches while breastfeeding in the middle of the night: “SIDS,” “suffocation,” “lice,” “preference of daddy over mommy,” “eczema,” “attachment disorder,” “arsenic in drinking water.” And then, after a quick perusal of the Bedbug Registry, I added “bedbugs” to the list.
Yes, there were a few raised eyebrows when I came to the conference with clothes packed in a plastic crate and practically slept in the bathtub. But when my husband returned from his own conference and woke up with three bites on his thigh, I tore up the house in search of evidence. I discovered it everywhere. Blood stains behind paintings? Check. Marks on mattress? Check. And most horribly, a trail of black on the seams of my daughter’s swing, the only place she could now successfully fall sleep. I pictured my innocent little baby ravaged by bugs during her few moments of repose.
(Passover was coming, a time of descending plagues.)
Suddenly there was no opportunity to worry about SIDS or lice in hair she didn’t even have or the links between breastfeeding and cancer. All my research was now narrowed on bedbugs: how to get rid of them, how to treat clothes, how to trap them with duct tape at the foot of the bed. When the baby napped, I spent my time examining the backs of headboards and the wall plates of outlets. I slept cradling a flashlight and if the baby did not wake me first, I set the alarm for four in the morning to scan our sheets. I lost 10 pounds.
My parents prepared to help me launder our entire house. I wrote for advice to a friend who spent months battling bedbugs. Our mattress was zipped up, protected.
My husband tried to redirect my paranoia. “Hey, what about lice? Can we worry about that again? And is it healthy for her to sleep in a swing?”
The exterminator came the day before Passover. We were right to be concerned, he said. Bedbugs were a growing problem. In the past, he saw maybe a case a year and now, he was spending most of his time treating bedbugs. I brought him upstairs and removed the painting. He peered at the red spots. Pressed them with an index finger. Looked like paint to him. The marks on the bed? Um, ballpoint pen? And what about the baby’s swing, the telltale trail of black? That looks like chocolate brown thread to me, he said.
My husband stood by the door, arms folded. He was getting worried that I was turning Yellow Wallpaper on him. The week before, at the pediatrician’s office, I scored so high on the postpartum screening quiz that the doctor wordlessly handed me a paper sprinkled with local psychiatrists.
“Can we turn our attention to the haroset?” he said when the exterminator left.
Slowly, slowly, I forced my attention back to “baby spine curvature sleep in swing” and “vaccination ok” and “drowning bathtub” and “low-VOC paint cancer.” I tried to get myself under control.
A few months later, I was invited to a friend’s birthday party in Brooklyn and decided attending would be the final step to recovery. I got dressed, swabbed myself with lipstick, hailed a cab. Driving along Smith Street, I watched groups of friends leaving bars, smoking, texting, laughing. The flash of restaurant lights, mothers and daughters holding ice cream cones, joggers alongside their dogs. It looked like life.
Then I noticed it: a brown bug skidding across the backseat and disappearing into the bowels of the floor where my handbag was splayed. Panicked, I demanded the driver drop me off right there in the middle of Ocean Avenue, and I walked, dazed, the rest of the way. The birthday girl greeted me at the door, took my coat and infested bag. Shouldn’t I warn her?, I agonized. A drink was placed in my hand and people conversed with me as if I were one of them, of their world. But I ate nothing and drank nothing, and all the torment of those first months returned with even greater force. Because now I had an actual bedbug inside my purse.
“I have to tell you something.” I took my friend aside and it all came out in a torrent: the cab, the errant bug, the looming threat. Could she not see that I was sick, contagious?
“Sounds like a cockroach,” she laughed. “Anyway, the whole building’s on the Bedbug Registry. They’re probably in here as we speak. Have a drink.”
And I did. When I got home, I instinctively shoved my entire outfit into a plastic crate on the landing reserved for compromised items like library books and shoes worn to public places. But bathed in the light of early morning, my nine-month-old napping in her swing, I decided to empty the crate and bring its contents inside. What could I do? If the plagues do not spare us, so be it. We must somehow live.
Let my people go.