My first serious girlfriend told me once that she wasn’t sure her grandparents would be okay with me. My existence was problematic, that is, relative to their granddaughter. I don’t remember it as worry. It was an observable fact: here is cause, and there is reaction.
The first time I got bed bugs, I was the third person living in an apartment intended for two residents. I wasn’t on the lease. In a grand romantic gesture, I had moved from my first apartment, in Kentucky, to go live with my girlfriend in Ohio. She had changed her mind. I had nowhere to go, and two friends from high school had a closet.
My room had no door, so I hung a blanket. I laid a mattress on the floor, and in the small square that was left, as many boxes of my books as I could. My clothes hung above me: the menacing shapes of my own body.
Against all odds, bed bugs have persevered and developed immunities to all but our most powerful poisons. Bless their hearts.
Bug bombs don’t work.
Most pesticides don’t work.
Once upon a time, it came close to extinction-level extermination. “Good night, don’t let the bed bugs bite” was a saying that thousands of people began to believe was a reference to an imaginary creature. A bogeyman. A bandersnatch.
Then, in 1972, DDT was banned. It turns out DDT was good for killing practically everything. And they came back. Like Voldemort, the underdog you don’t want to admit is an underdog.
Modern treatment usually consists of spraying the bugs where they live with a chemical consisting of concentrated isopropyl alcohol. As it evaporates, it dehydrates the bugs, killing the ones that are alive, leaving behind the eggs.
And so the eggs hatch, and the exterminator comes again. And again. And so on until all the bugs are, you hope, gone.
That is, if you can afford the treatments. And assuming you can, it can be difficult to distinguish between what you don’t recognize and what isn’t there at all. You never really know if they’re still there.
Gone is not the same as invisible. Not always.
Love is blind, they say. Not being seen, however, is certainly not what it feels like to be loved.
But then, that’s only one of many truisms centered around love. Love conquers all. Love is an open door, which is all you need, and it’s all around, and love is respect, and a battlefield and love is love is love is love.
That’s what they say, anyway. There is nothing that they don’t say about love. One can find a famous quote justifying almost any position.
The history of your people, whoever your people are, is likely a catalogue of love.
A portrait of Erlanger, Kentucky, where I loved, invisibly, as a teenager until my mid-twenties:
I became obsessed with the Game Show Network after my first big breakup. I never ended up meeting her grandparents.
Every show on the Game Show Network is a perfect show. Fast-paced. Non-linear. You can come in at any point, pay as much or as little attention as you’d like. Usually there’s a happy ending. When there’s not, everyone is strangely all right about it. You almost never see anyone cry.
I moved to Kentucky from California just before the ninth grade school year started. I was terrified. But everyone ended up completely ignoring me. Everyone except one girl, who came over to the desk in front of me and turned around in the chair, sitting on her knees. She introduced herself. She asked how I was doing. She asked if I was excited about the new school year.
A couple years later, everyone begged her to talk about the time she was on “The Price Is Right.” She played a VHS tape of the announcer calling her name to “come on down!” She ran down the aisle, through a crowd of screaming people, to Bob Barker’s stage. She told us what it was like. The show is always looking for energetic, optimistic people. But “The Price Is Right” doesn’t want excitement. It wants authenticity. She waved her hands a lot, and it was true: she was actually that excited. She was naturally infectious, and on television, as in real life, she was a joy to watch. To listen to.
I could never be a game show contestant. There was nothing I could practice; I didn’t have the right temperament, and I hated being seen. When I turned on the Game Show Network, I was watching a wholly different people performing in their wholly different country. On some level, they were being a heightened version of themselves. The heightened version of myself was the version of myself I most hated; it was the part that people made of me. I wasn’t game show material. It just wasn’t in my blood.
Bed bugs practice hematophagy; they subsist entirely on the proteins and lipids found in blood. This means they are not a sign of filth. They are not attracted to garbage or kitty litter. They are a sign of nothing. Except, maybe, hunger. I could relate to that.
However, this doesn’t make them less disgusting. Knowing they are there, sleeping in the day, under your sheets, in between the pages of your books, in the corners and cracks of the walls. They make you aware of even the slightest movement.
When you happen to see one, you might be inclined to swat it, like a fly or a roach, but they are small and flat, like apple seeds. The best technique is to take one between the fingers and rub, the way one quickly dries and removes Elmer’s glue from one’s hands.
But they are filled with blood. With your blood. Not much. One drop. But that is enough.
After one date with me, a girlfriend told me she had been kicked out of the house. She had told her father (it has usually been the father) that his opinion on me didn’t matter. Our relationship didn’t last long.
An itch (in medicine, pruritus) is an absurd sensation to try to describe. In fact, science has shown that an itch has so much in common with pain that it might be easier to describe an itch by the reflexive actions it elicits rather than the feeling of having it, itself. Pain elicits withdrawal. An itch elicits a scratch.
Your eyes can play tricks on you.
At a conference last year, I arrived in my travel clothes, which are the only clothes I have. T-shirt, jeans, bandana. I set my suitcase down, leaned against the wall, and started texting. A white lady, probably in her fifties, caught my attention. I pulled out my ear buds so I could hear her question.
“Do you work here?” she asked.
Your mind can play tricks on you. I have wondered what I could have done, what I should have worn or said, to shake this woman’s assumption that I was put here to clean her sheets. After, she became a spotlight who found me in the crowd, to ask my name. To give me hers. To be friendly.
I almost always arrive at this. There was nothing I could have done but be nothing. I could remove the itch. Disappear.
(Continued at The Show – Episode 2 of 3)