Pssst! Hey you. Yeah, you there, staring at that screen. Do you want to join a top-secret club? A club so exclusive that most members won’t even talk about it? A club with lots of mysterious Latin-sounding code words like “cimex lectularius” and “thermal remediation”? You may already qualify for membership in this club and not even know it.
Welcome to the Bed Bug Club.
The Bed Bug Club sounds almost cute, like a Disney cartoon about a gang of adorable, six-legged invertebrate pals who embark on wacky adventures and feast on the blood of humans. There are plenty of other repulsive vermin with their own books, movies, and clubs, right? (I’m looking at you, Mickey). Thanks to Scott, my husband and personal illustrator, the Bed Bug Club now has its own irresistible cartoon mascot, Blotchy the Bed Bug:
It was the penultimate week of school; the calendar pregnant with picnics, talent shows, weddings and graduations. On Thursday, I noticed little pink spots on both of the younger kids’ (6 and 4) hands, forearms and legs. The spots didn’t itch or bother them at all. Probably just mosquitoes, I thought, nothing to worry about. [CUE OMINOUS MUSIC]
Besides the bites, the biggest red flag was that our life lately was just, too…NORMAL. Quiet. In the last 10 months, Scott and I had survived job loss, unemployment, a new job, buying an old house, moving into that house and scrambling to make it livable for our family, without a refrigerator or dryer or working roof for the first two months. We were finally settling in, ready to pop the cork on a carefree summer routine. Life just seemed so…. easy. Too easy. We were starting to get soft.
A few days after the pink spots started, Scott and I returned from an especially delightful date night (Mad Max at the theater down the street, then a drink at Moe’s Tavern*). I peeked into the kids’ room, and saw it: a bug – reddish-brown, as big as an apple seed – skitter across Sam’s bed. Reflexively, I swatted it. Its bloated body burst into a puddle of sweet baby blood.
My skin went cold, my vision blurred, my internal organs shifted uncomfortably. I knew instantly what that critter was, and what it meant. I called out to Scott, “Time to clock back in! Our next Little Crisis has arrived.”
ASSEMBLE THE PANEL OF EXPERTS:
A wise friend of mine recently said that when you’re faced with a crisis, you should call everyone you know who’s been through it before – your personal Panel of Experts.
I immediately called two friends who’ve had bed bugs, a couple whom I’ll call Golgotha & Hazarmaveth (not their real names). Golgotha ordered me NOT to throw everything away, or start dragging mattresses and people around the house. Stay put until you get professional help — the right kind of help. Her and Hazarmaveth initially hired a traditional exterminator who used steam cleaning and poison. After four or five treatments (and $500 wasted), the poison did nothing but sicken the family cat. Finally, Golgotha and Hazarmaveth tried thermal remediation, a fancy term for heating your whole house up to 120-140 degrees Fahrenheit, baking the bugs to death. “Just do the heat treatment,” Golgotha promised, “They are going to kill those brothersuckers** and you will be done with it forever.”
Five minutes later, I was on the phone with the Thermal Remediation Guy. He would see us in a week for $1,200 (yes, that’s one thousand, two hundred American dollars, and we gladly paid it).
After the kids left for school, I inspected the crime scene. Mattress covers don’t matter: The kids’ wooden bunk bed, with its dozens of little screw holes, was the perfect Bed Bug Apartment Complex.
The first clue was the little black spots around the screw holes. Bed bugs will happily drop a load right outside their “front door:”
The hole below had poo stains and a bug in it. Excuse the quality of these cell phone pics, but I wasn’t really thinking about a blog post when I took them:
I stuck contact paper over all the screw holes, which made me feel like I was doing something proactive, other than setting my house on fire:
OWNING MY INFESTATION:
After initiation into the Bed Bug Club, I had a choice to make: 1) Keep the infestation a secret from friends and family, or 2) own my infestation proudly. Or at least, honestly.
Really, I had no choice – in the past two weeks, we’d had about two dozen people visit our house. Any of them could have brought the bugs into our home, or brought them home from us. As much as I feared social pariah-ity (sure, that’s a word), I had a responsibility to inform all my favorite people.
First, I told my neighbors Liz and David (their real names). I had just given them a bag of hand-me-down clothes, and our children are constantly running in and out of each others’ houses (Email subject line: BURN THOSE HAND-ME-DOWNS). To my relief, their response was quick and gracious, full of sympathy and understanding, I’m sorry you have to deal with this, what can we do to help? And David, who has experience managing apartment buildings (and thus infestations) assured me that bedbugs don’t spread disease and they can’t hurt you. “It’s just like having lice in your bed,” which I found strangely comforting.
Next, I contacted the parents of six preschoolers who were scheduled to play at our house the next day, and had all been in our house the previous week. Everyone was great: That really sucks, I’m sorry this happened to you.
At the school talent show the next day, friends didn’t avoid me. Instead, they touched my arm, or gave me a hug. They asked me questions – How did you find them? What do they look like? And more importantly, How are you doing? How can I help?
That night, our friends Pildash & Zobebah (nope, not their real names, either) walked over in the pouring rain to give us some fresh-baked muffins and a “I’m Sorry You Have Bed Bugs” card.*** Their family had joined the Bed Bug Club four years ago and (after thermal remediation) have been bug-free since. While their muffins warmed my belly, their advice and reassurance propped up my sanity over the next few days. They were in the club, they understood.
Turns out, I wasn’t a pariah or an outcast. I was a regular person who just got some really bad news. And happens to have some really great friends.
Despite the love and the muffins, it was a very long week. When I put my kids to bed each night, I felt like I was laying them out for sacrifice. Their bedroom was a War Zone, and all we could do was sleep in the trenches and wait for backup.
TURNS OUT I’M NOT BETTER THAN ANYBODY ELSE: Membership in the Bed Bug Club includes a complimentary dose of Humility. Whenever I hear bad news about other people – job loss, illness, divorce, bankruptcy, or yes, bed bug infestation – my brain secretes a special protective coating that tricks me into thinking those things will never happen to me. The protective coating is a polymer of all the ways (real or imagined) that those other people are different from me; all the things they did wrong that I would have done right.
Wondering if YOU have what it takes to join the Bed Bug Club? Blotchy the Bedbug doesn’t care if you shower every day, pay your student loans on time, or do yoga four times a week. He doesn’t even care that you can explain how World War I started, or that you can spell chrysanthemum out loud without closing your eyes.**** As long as you are a living, warm-blooded animal, Blotchy will take you!
GETTING BAKED: THE FORCED FAMILY INFESTI-VACATION:
Now that I’ve thoroughly bummed you out, how about a happy ending? To prepare for the Thermal Remediation, the exterminators ordered us to cut down on clutter so they could move things around as necessary. Suddenly freed from the chains of sentiment and frugality (who wants hand-me-downs from the Bed Bug Club?), we tossed ten garbage bags of clothes, shoes and toys.
The internet told me that under-bed storage was a good hiding place for bugs. In less than an hour, I had emptied ALL OF IT, mostly into the garbage.
The cleaning was ruthless, liberating, and magical.
The morning of the Thermal Remediation, we shoved all the crayons, alcohol (rubbing and drinking), aerosol cans and toiletries into our tiny fridge so they wouldn’t melt and/or explode as they heated our house up to 130 degrees F:
By 8:30 a.m., the exterminator’s trucks had arrived, and to my great relief did not say “YOU HAVE BED BUGS” in bright orange letters on the side. They deposited a bunch of fans and giant, but discreet, portable heaters into the front yard, further confusing curious neighbors:
Since every great moment calls for a new portmanteau, we called it our INFESTI-CATION: we visited the Field Museum, then took a long walk along the lake front, ate ice cream cones, played at the park, and wrapped up the day with burgers and beers at a musty underground diner. Other Bedbug Club Members called to check on us, and we could honestly say that we were doing great:
That day was the most fun we’d had as a family in a very long time. Maybe too much fun for some of us:
“Those are the folks who refuse to change their ways,” Scott the Exterminator warned me. “You got your international travelers who don’t inspect their luggage,” – which of course is not me – “and folks who like to drag things out of the dumpster.”
* Moe’s Tavern is an actual bar in the Avondale neighborhood of Chicago. Go on Sunday night for the Jazz, followed by a Psychedelic Jam Session (bring your own Theremin). But whatever you do, don’t order an Old Fashioned.
** The word she used was not brothersuckers but another word that rhymes with brothersuckers and is not appropriate for an International Family Blog like Projectophile.
*** The “Sorry You Have Bed Bugs” card was homemade. Hallmark™ does not yet carry a line of “Infestation Sympathy” cards. Not yet.
**** Note that none of these things apply to me.