When the bed bugs came, Aaron Lester called an exterminator. He should have called a therapist.
Last August my wife woke one morning with a small red welt on her hip. It could have been a mosquito bite. Had it been a mosquito bite, our lives would not have turned upside down, its contents packed into plastic contractor bags. I would not have lost my job.
But it wasn’t a mosquito. It was a bed bug. Or, likely, many bed bugs. I had brought them home from my job managing a residential group home for adults with mental illness.
By the afternoon of the first bite a professional exterminator was at our house. We were standing in our sons’ bedroom. Larry, the exterminator, was holding a large flashlight. He had bad news. Larry recommended the standard treatment for bed bugs. First, empty the contents of our house—clothes, blankets, bags, curtains, our children’s stuffed animals. Then, he said, he’d need to lay down a succession of pesticide treatments.
It turns out a pesticide has not been developed that will kill bed bugs eggs; he would need to kill each generation over and over until they were gone. Even then, it doesn’t always work.
I don’t remember if my wife was crying at that precise moment. But it wouldn’t have been the first or last time during those weeks.
Though my wife, my 5-year-old, and I were all bitten, our 2-year-old took the brunt of the feedings. A female bedbug can lay up to twelve eggs a day. Each egg hatches in about ten days. Twenty days later these nymphs will begin to lay their own eggs. The nymphs will die if they don’t eat in a few days. But they will eat. Every twenty-four hours or so, after you’ve tucked yourself and your family into bed, the bug will pierce your skin with an elongated beak through which it will drink your blood.
The meal will last about three to ten minutes, but you probably won’t feel the bite because bed bug saliva has a mild analgesic in it. After feeding on you, the bug will tuck itself into your bed and await the next meal.
My family’s blood was being sucked. Our baby—our defenseless baby—was being preyed upon at night while he slept. If it were a wolf or a lion or a monster from the closet, I would have killed it with my bare hands.
But our enemy was much stronger than a typical predator. All I could do was follow Larry’s instructions and empty the house of our junk, of our beloved things, of everything. I bought one hundred contractor bags and filled them with the detritus of family life—baby blankets, sweaters, shoes, anything a bed bug might use as shelter.
But what about books? Toys? Carpets? What could stay? We were never certain. We can never be certain. An adult bed bug can live for a year without feeding—without coming to you at night and taking your blood.
I still catch my wife examining a small piece of lint on the children’s bed or a fleck of dirt in the laundry. She won’t say anything and neither will I.
Along with the poison recommended to treat our toddlers’ beds, Larry told us that high heat could also kill the bugs. So I spent days in the laundry mat, cycling our belongings through industrial dryers. Each morning I would take the kids’ car seats out and stuff the car with the bags—a full day of laundry ahead of me.
Weeks later we still lived out of storage bags. We kept a select grouping of heat-treated clothes in large, clear bags on top of the dining room table. We would get dressed and undressed in the dining room.
Worn clothes would be deposited directly into trash bags and sealed for delivery to the laundry. I spent the hours between laundry cycles on the phone with my employer or looking at bed bugs online.
I was told to be at work or lose my job. I argued that this was an unsafe working environment. We called a lawyer and talked about writing a threatening letter. But ultimately, in one of the worst job markets in a generation, I just walked away. I never set foot in the group home again.
Ten months later I still think back to my days at the laundry mat. Lulled by the tumbling of the dryers and the stifling August heat, I often found myself in a trance state. As I sat, sweating, waiting for the laundry to finish, I wanted nothing more than to shed my life of all this infected stuff, our infected house.
I saw over and over a vivid image of a family—my family—walking down the middle of the street. My youngest son is in my wife’s arms, I’m holding our eldest’s hand. We’ve just stepped out of our house. We’re walking away. We’ve shed our clothes and we don’t have any belongings. We’re simply going to keep walking. Away from this.
We will walk until we reach the ocean. We’ll bathe in the salt water. I see my wife smiling. We will be cleansed.