Bedbugged! is a weekly column by journalist and bed bug survivor Theresa Braine. For more, click here.
Things unraveled quickly after New Year’s 2010. Having declared myself bed bug free following a 2009 battle that had sucked up my entire summer, I had hesitantly started unpacking my possessions from the plastic bags around the holidays, despite a few suspicious-looking welts that started appearing much the way the water in the glasses had jiggled in Jurassic Park at the distant approach of the tyrannosaurus rex.
My landlord, whom I’ll call Rocco, told me he was going out of town for a long weekend to visit his wife’s family and would not be available for about five days.
I revealed my welt concerns to him, and he said he’d have TC, his roach guy (the one who had screwed up my first extermination), check around. I would rather have had a real inspection, by someone who knew what he was doing, but it wasn’t my decision. Although I could have called ace exterminator John Furman or another expert to inspect, in the end it was Rocco's building, and he was not willing to pay. Me, I was tapped out financially from the previous year, and if Rocco wanted to do something (he had left the first extermination entirely up to me, not even reimbursing the $200 I'd paid TC), he was entitled to have a go.
Rocco also noted that TC had inspected the apartment of my diagonal downstairs neighbors, Lena and Ron (not their real names), while they’d been out of town in December, since Lena thought she had been bitten by something, and he had found nothing.
Right after Rocco left on the first Thursday of 2009, as if on cue, three things happened in quick succession:
First, that Friday my next-door neighbor, an elderly man we’ll call Arnold, told me he was moving. A retired city worker, he had applied and been accepted to one of the new high-rises going up along the waterfront, a beneficiary of the developers’ promise to provide low-income units.
I had been very open about my apartment’s bed bug problem with all three neighbors (the third being "Mauricio," who lived below me with his wife and owned the building’s ground-floor restaurant), and I asked Arnold if he was going to have his place inspected given what had happened in the building. To date no one else had had a problem, and as far as any of us knew it had originated in my apartment--an assumption I had made early on and verbalized, not realizing that they could have already been in the building when I arrived.
(This marked yet another major mistake, my assuming that I had “started it.” The first person to find them is not necessarily the first person to get them, which is another reason all surrounding units should be inspected when a bed bug infestation is discovered.)
Arnold’s apartment, however, was the one that the contractors had leaned my disassembled bed frame next to, so there was plenty of probability that bed bugs had escaped into his place back in June, a full six months earlier.
He said he had had no problems, then added, “Well, I’ve seen some weird bugs, just little bugs I’ve never seen before.”
My blood ran cold. “In the bedroom?” I asked.
“Yeah, but just a couple, on the wall,” he said.
Mind you, this was coming from a guy in a cluttered apartment who was myopic at best and completely clueless at worst. He’d had roach problems severe enough to produce screaming fights with the landlord, who would periodically upbraid him for being a slob. Although filth is not an attractor or indicator of bed bugs, clutter gives them more places to hide. And given that the elderly are much less likely to react to bites, he was perfectly situated to have a long-term, undiscovered infestation.
I strongly suggested that he get inspected before he moved. It turned out that he was still waiting for the new building to be finished, so he didn’t have a move-out date, but he had definitely been accepted into the new space. He said he didn’t have the money, and I offered to split the cost of a canine inspection. Then I offered to help him disinfect his stuff in my Packtite. He didn’t seem to think any of that was necessary.
The very next day, the second thing happened. I went to the local Saturday farmers market with Lena, Arnold’s direct downstairs neighbor, and told her what he had told me.
“Oh my god,” she said. “I have been getting bitten by something, and we are not sure what it is. Rocco had TC come and inspect when we were in Hawaii in December for a wedding, but he didn’t find anything.”
None of this boded well.
“Well,” I said, “Rocco is out of town till Thursday, so let’s just sit tight and see what happens.”
I tried to remain sanguine. I was, after all, fully versed in what to do, and although I had started to unpack, the majority of my stuff was still in plastic, and in the living room. I tried not to think about the fact that I shared a bedroom wall with Arnold. Mentally, I hunkered down.
Then came the clincher.
The following Tuesday I was working at the built-in desk along the wall I shared with Arnold’s apartment when I noticed movement out of the corner of my eye. My laptop was elevated to be used as a monitor, and I was staring straight at the screen while I typed on a separate keyboard.
Sensing this movement, I glanced down—to see a bedbug crawling along the two inches between my keyboard and the edge of the desk. It was trying to scuttle under the keyboard. It was flat, though—unfed—so instead of a hiding crevice, it may have been looking for the source of the sweet-smelling carbon dioxide I was emitting.
It was 8:30 in the morning. The cheeky little bugger had ventured out brazenly in daytime.
I grabbed a little plastic jar that had once held chocolate sprinkles (I had prepared that much for a new invasion, keeping containers handy) and scooped it inside, then sealed the bottle tightly, cursing all the while. There was nothing to fear, but my fight-or-flight response had kicked in full blast, and my heart was racing.
So it was official: The bed bugs were back. And from what my neighbors had told me, it was clear they had spread through the building.
Next Week: The building unites. Well, almost.
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.