"Do you know anything about bedbugs?" I asked my friend Ed on the phone, after waking up covered in what looked like small insect bites one morning.
"Yes," said Ed, with a heavy sigh of apprehension. "I know they are an excellent reason to sell your house."
Bedbugs are insects the size of small woodlice that live in the darkest crevices of your home. They come out only in the hour before dawn, when your sleeping body is at its stillest, and use their long incisors to inject you with an anaesthetic so you can't feel them sucking out your blood for 10 or maybe 15 minutes. You might wake up an hour later itching like crazy, but by then the bugs will be gone back to their hiding places. It is no good changing beds, or sleeping on the couch: the bedbugs will find you. It is no good trying to poison them: bedbugs are almost entirely indestructible. It is no good sleeping with your clothes on: the bedbugs will simply feed on your eyelids.
"You done any travelling lately?" asks the exterminator — whose name is Vinny from Texas — when I call him in a panic.
"Um," I say, trying not to swallow my tongue. "Some."
"Yeah," he says. "They probably came in your backpack from a motel or someplace like that. I can come over first thing in the morning and give you an inspection."
"But I can feel them crawling on me," I say. "I'm looking after this house for my friends – they're coming back next week. I need you to come right now, Vinny, right away."
"Can you actually see any bugs right now, ma'am?"
Vinny doubts very much that I can. It is 10 o'clock on a bright Sunday morning and he wants to get back into bed with his wife. He wonders where I got his cellphone number from. Online, probably, on one of those hysterical bedbug 'forums'. He wishes he knew how to delete it. Isn't there some kind of service provider — not unlike Vinny's own pest control business — that can eradicate your personal phone number from the internet? He can hear Julie getting out of the bed upstairs. Dammit. There is no finer feeling to Vinny than lying pressed up against her beautiful warm body when she's sleeping in on a Sunday morning, and now he's missed it.
"No," I say, pacing back and forth in the empty house. "I can't see anything. But I can feel them. Crawling on me. Feasting."
"Ma'am," says Vinny, sighing. "You been under any stress lately?"
My stress is entirely centred around the fact that I am house-sitting for two of my closest friends and, after they have looked after me for two whole months — cooking for me, caring for me, listening to my shit — I have now gone and infested their house with indestructible termites. They are about to lose everything – everything! — and it is all my fault. Welcome home, closest friends.
"So, yeah, I'm finding that pretty fucking stressful to be frank with you, Vinny," I explain to him.
"Okay, lady," he says. "Until you've seen a bug, you don't know that it's bedbugs you got. And nobody has to lose their house. I suggest you take a valium and get some rest, and I'll come by first thing in the morning for an inspection."
And then he hangs up.
Bedbugs multiply like crazy, is what it says online. They are nearly impossible to kill. They carry no disease but have made many people psychologically ill: bed is where you should be at your most relaxed, not where you fear being eaten alive in the dead of night. I scratch at my wrists. There's a man on Craigslist in New York selling seven dead bedbugs for $200 each. He knows how much these things are worth: landlords won't get your apartment sprayed unless they have cold hard evidence. People get crazy in the summertime as the city heats up: families fall apart, relationships break up, everyone needs something to direct their anger at. Bedbugs just take the rap.
I close my laptop. I don't need to read this shit. I know what it is, I'm not crazy, it's almost certainly a bedbug infestation. I pull on my jacket and go out to the hardware store to buy some traps: twelve plastic cylinders that fit under the legs of the beds, each dusted with talcum powder. The bugs crawl in on their way to feed on you at night, and then they can't crawl back out again. Tonight, I will lie in the bed and wait for them to come to me, then pick them out of the traps in the morning. I can present them to Vinny as evidence, then he can spray the house with kryptonite before my friends even get back from their vacation. Yes, I'll just have to lie very still on the bed for six hours tonight.
"Essentially," I explain to Dharma, who lives across the street. "I am the bait."
"That seems a bit extreme," says Dharma, who had to comfort me earlier over all this and is beginning to worry about the state of my mental health. "Can't you just come and stay with us and throw a big old steak on the bed instead?"
No, Dharma, unfortunately I cannot. Bedbugs are attracted to the carbon dioxide in our breath, not just the smell of blood. I've done my research, I know what I'm dealing with. I'm practically the resident Oregon bedbug expert at this point.
Dharma sighs and shakes her head. "Well, good luck, Annie," she says.
That night I make sure the bedsheets aren't touching the floor: that's just like throwing a rope down to the termites and inviting them up for more. Each trap is set under each leg of the bed. My bites are itching and I smother them with calomine lotion, then I spread myself out star-shaped in my underwear, making sure plenty of skin is exposed so the bugs can smell my blood.
"Good luck, mate," says Cathy, calling to say goodnight, from way over on the other side of the Atlantic, where it is already light.
"Thanks Cath," I say, wearily. "I'll call you in the morning, with the new evidence."
Cathy doesn't say anything but she thinks that this may be the worst of my hypochondria that she's seen yet, possibly even worse than the deep vein thrombosis I had in Tibet, or the six months that I lived with breast cancer, yet refused to get a test. "Goodnight, then," is all she says, gently. "Please just try to get some rest."
Rest is a nice thought, but it's not going to happen. This is what I get for ever running away to America in the first place. An infestation; my friends' home ruined. This sleepless night, I'm afraid, is my punishment.
At 9.30 I'm woken up by Lola barking and a loud knocking at the front door. Fuck it, I've overslept. I pull on my t-shirt and jeans (that are hanging carefully from the ceiling) and run downstairs to let the exterminator in. Lola dashes out in to the garden to take a piss, then rushes back and bounds around him.
"Hey," says Vinny, giving her a good rub, and I instantly warm to him. "Ready for the inspection?"
He is shorter than I expected, and less Texan. I also expected him to have some kind of jumpsuit on — and a pack on his back with the kryptonite — but he just wears jeans and a sweater and looks like a regular guy.
"I'm ready," I say, letting him in. Vinny comes upstairs and together we inspect the traps. Nothing. Lola watches us from the doorway. Vinny pulls on a pair of surgical gloves, then examines the bedding. I feel strangely embarrassed that the bed is probably still warm. He goes through all the linen with a magnifying glass and a flashlight, then he goes through the mattress, then the furniture, then the picture frames on the wall, then he starts on the skirting boards. Nothing.
"But what about my bites?"
Vinny takes my arm and gently inspects the small pink marks.
"Could be mosquitos," he says. "Or a reaction to bleach, if you use that in your washing at all."
Suddenly, I want to kiss Vinny. I don't, of course: he's the pest control manager and I'm not crazy. I just pay him 50 bucks, thank him profusely, then he goes home to his beautiful wife and I start packing up for New York.