Bedbugged! is a weekly column by journalist and bed bug survivor Theresa Braine. For more, click here.
Protected by an invisible sheen of bed bug death dust (some combination of the insecticides Drione, TempoDust and TridDiePress) discreetly sprinkled in cracks and crevices by the estimable exterminator John Furman, I started to actually believe I was bed bug–free. I was no longer leaping awake at night to inspect the mattress, and the bouts of weeping tapered off.
“Doctor’s orders” were to not buy any new furniture for at least 60 days from my last bite. At the time of Furman’s follow-up visit in mid-August, I had about six weeks to go. I made the most of it, traveling as much as possible once I didn’t have to stick around and be bait every night, eating out and hanging with friends when I was in town, and basically spending as little time at the apartment as possible.
As the summer wore on, I even started scoping out beds.
I got a couple of bites on the inside of my lower right arm, but it was mosquito season, and I didn’t think anything of it.
Then a couple of weeks later, right after I’d been at a family barbeque outside the city, I found a bulbous, dead bug in my bed. It looked engorged, but didn’t at all resemble a bed bug, so I wasn’t worried about that. But I did suspect it might be a tick, so I brought it to the doctor.
“I need to send this to the lab,” he said. I suddenly did not want to let it go. I was so used to saving bug samples that I didn’t want to relinquish this specimen. I had accumulated quite a few containers of dead bed bugs, the odd carpet beetle larvae, and not a few pieces of lint, and I felt the need to round out my collection.
I reluctantly let it go. Days later the verdict came back: “It’s a flea,” my doctor said.
Ah, I thought. Well, I’ve had fleas before (in an earlier life, from an ex-boyfriend’s cat), I can handle that. I wrote to John Furman, who specializes in bed bugs but gives advice on many pests, to ask what to do. He suggested a Victor Flea Trap, which would attract fleas if they were there via a little lightbulb that emitted enough heat to convince them to jump into a domelike structure with a glue-paper floor. I dutifully bought one, plugged it in and waited for it to fill with jumping ankle-biters.
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All it collected was dust.
I remained optimistic. Well, as optimistic as one can be when praying for fleas.
“The bed bugs are gone, as far as I can tell,” I e-mailed a friend. “I am getting a few bites but I suspect they are fleas. I never thought I'd be so relieved at the thought of fleas.”
I visited one of my brothers. I told him the bed bugs were gone, but he took one look at the two close-together bites on my arm (they were lasting a long time for mosquito bites) and said, “What’s that?”
“A mosquito bite, or a flea,” I replied.
My brother and his wife gave each other a long look.
“Yeah, that’s right, it’s always good to have the journalists in complete denial,” he said.
“It’s summer!” I snapped. “Plus, my doctor said this bug I found, which I thought was a tick, is a flea. It was analyzed by a lab!”
I was especially annoyed because I knew more about bed bugs than anyone in my family, not to mention pretty much anyone I came across in general. I was always answering bed bug questions.
Nevertheless, I was not that sanguine - or in denial - so I e-mailed Furman.
“If the flea trap is not catching any, should I assume there were just two rogue ones? And if not, where would they be living and how could I detect them? I do not have any pets, and most of my bedroom is wood,” I wrote. “I ask partly because I've been getting more welts and am hoping desperately that the bedbugs aren’t back. Any advice?”
Furman, who like most PCOs worth their salt liberally dispenses bed bug wisdom to freaked-out potential sufferers, wrote back a couple of days later--a timely response given his busy schedule but an interval that had me on tenterhooks.
“One or two fleas can be possible,” he said. “You need to make sure the surrounding apartments are inspected as I'm sure I have told you in the past. Keep an eye on or a log of the bites and I guess let me know if they continue.”
Needless to say, the surrounding apartments had not been inspected regularly after the initial, Rambo-wannabe exterminator, who usually did roach jobs for my landlord, had looked around back in the spring and found nothing. (He had also barely found anything in my apartment back in the spring, declaring it recently and lightly infested despite the two-month buildup of welts on my person.)
But after that so-called inspection, the unlicensed contractors had dragged my unwrapped bed frame and mattress downstairs (the sofa, at least, had been dismantled and bagged before they took it down), leaning the wood of the bed frame next to my neighbor’s door. No inspections had been done since then.
Meanwhile I continued counting down my 60 days of plastic-bag and air-mattress living, since I lacked definitive evidence to make me think the bed bugs were coming back--such evidence being fecal traces, cast skins or bed bugs themselves.
Looking back, I can see that the pair of bites was like the ominous Jaws chord lurching in the background of my existence. At the time, though, I was working to stay calm, listening to my doctor (even though he had been wrong before, about the hives) and monitoring the flea trap.
When my usually accommodating sister refused to come up to my apartment, saying hesitantly, “I’m afraid of your welts,” I got a bit defensive. I was bedbug free, dammit! Or was I?
Next Week: Bed shopping
Theresa Braine is a NYC-based journalist and bed bug survivor whose work has appeared in the NY Daily News, People, Newsday and other outlets. Bedbugged! is her weekly column about life in the bed bug trenches and how to climb out with your sanity intact.