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Bedbugged! is a weekly column by journalist and bed-bug survivor Theresa Braine. For more, click here.
Slowly I started to settle into my new digs. It wasn’t automatic. I was still in shock. I was still trying to wrap my head around the reality that, freshly returned from the so-called developing world to a supposedly advanced country, I had been run out of house and home by a bunch of bugs.
I was also having trouble accepting the fact that no public program was in place to help people deal with this. The city could just shrug its shoulders at the plight of thousands of people who were living out of plastic bags, spending all their money and in some cases losing their homes and possessions (or worse, forced to live with ongoing infestations), much of it simply because of a lack of credible information. Was this any way to live?
Once I was safely away from my old place, I called 311 and asked whether I could take legal action. I was told that I could file a complaint and the city would send an inspector. I figured it was not going to be a bed-bug savvy entomologist, but who knows. The only way I would have had legal recourse was if I had stayed, refused to pay rent and fought.
I went ahead and made the call, logging the fact that there had been bed bugs in my apartment. This happened just before the law took effect requiring landlords to notify tenants of a bed-bug problem in the prior year, so my landlord was not even under a legal obligation to tell prospective tenants at the time.
I also added to an entry I had made on the Bedbug Registry when Arnold left. I stuck to the facts: The building had had bed bugs. I had left after two infestations and a year of fighting. I noted that I could not say whether the bugs were going to return but that I didn't have much faith in my landlord's methods. I did not want to condemn anybody or anything. I just wanted potential tenants to have all possible information at their disposal.
Life was not without its scares. A week after I arrived at my new place, one of my roommates came out of her room with three magenta bites on her leg. My heart dropped.
“I woke up Saturday itching," she said. "I think I felt something fly up my skirt on my way home the other day. Or maybe it got me on the couch.”
That threw me into paroxysms of self-doubt. Had I brought anything inadvertently that I’d forgotten to treat? The only things I had taken straight to the apartment were a bag of potting soil that had never been anywhere near my bedroom (and on which I'd spotted a subtle sheen of bed-bug death dust after John Furman’s treatment the year before), a plastic bowl that I had washed thoroughly, especially since there’d been a small whitish thing I’d had to scrub off, and a watering can made from an old paint can.
All three items had spent their entire residence at my apartment at the far end of the living room, where I’d stored plant stuff. The bugs had never made it there. Nevertheless I became convinced that somehow a bug had laid an egg on one of those items and it had hatched and there were now bed bugs breeding in her room.
I went in one day while she was at work, thinking I’d unobtrusively inspect her bed. I stood at the threshold. Her room had stuff flung everywhere. I thought, Well I’ll at least look a little under the mattress. I picked up the white sheet. Underneath was a black futon.
I can’t help this woman, I thought. I had to let it go. Of course there were no bugs. She didn’t get any other bites. It was June, after all. Mosquito season. She’d said she was allergic.
My relative, too, tore apart his house and found nothing. So the beg bug at work, if it had been one, had not been his. Or mine. Office personnel had removed and destroyed the offending file boxes, sent him home for a day and saturated the area around his workspace with insecticide.
“To this day everyone thinks I saw a mouse,” he told me weeks later. “If they knew it was a bed bug I’d be a pariah.”
At the end of June Rocco called. I had not paid for June. I had simply left. There had been no security deposit, so aside from the mailbox keys, which I had held onto for a few weeks while my mail transfer went into effect, I was free and clear.
“Rent?” he demanded.
“I don’t live there anymore,” I said.
“You don’t tell me?”
“You told me,” I said, savoring the moment. “You told me to leave, so I left.”
There was short pause.
“How is the apartment?” he asked. “Did you take the fridge or the stove?”
Huh? I had left not only those items, which were his, but also the washing machine and ceiling fans that I had paid for, because I couldn’t stand the hassle of trying to de-bug and transport them. In all I was out several hundred dollars worth of household goods, plus the bed I'd left behind.
It was worth it, however. I couldn’t take legal action, but that allowed me take the high road. Life was too short. It was time to begin again.
Next week: “Coming out” to my roommates, and a bedbug scare
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 trenches and climbing out with your sanity intact.