I wake one night, while sleeping on the living room floor, in a sort of panic. Half-asleep I grab at my neck, aware that morning will bring both terror and relief. I count seventeen bites upon waking. Angry, red welts splattered across my chest. The person I live with sees this, twists her lips, turns on her heel and walks into the other room.
Months later she will accuse me of making it all up.
It’s a terrible thing when someone makes you doubt your own mind.
My neighbor tells me these particular bedbugs have good taste, as I’m the person they’ve chosen to bite (they do that, they choose one person--hormones and such). I tell him I’m not likely to be his sixth wife. But I take the compliment, nonetheless.
With the apartment before this it was mice. I left on an evening deep into April when the sky was that particular blue-gray that promises rain.
My roommate, the one the bedbugs did not choose, tells me not to leave in the middle of the night. As if I could. Instead I will leave two months later, in the middle of October, a gentle mist sprinkling the city, furniture piled high beside the curb. It will have been two months since we’ve spoken. Two months of unsteady hands and long walks. Two months of doing my very best to not go home. Two months of hating another human being and wishing I didn’t. Two months of sadness.
She ends up with a photo album that belongs to me. That’s the thing about bedbugs. You wrap everything up in black, industrial strength garbage bags, and so much of what is not thrown out gets shuffled and misplaced. I would have just had her toss it, clean break, but that there were photos in it from my parents’ wedding. Photos of my brother and myself as children. Baptisms and graduations. Real 4x6 prints of days we’d never again live. So I asked. And I asked. And I asked again. I sent emails. And made phone calls. I offered to pick it up, or procure it from her landlord.
Nearly four months after moving out I go to get it, on a January afternoon, the sky heavy with snow. I walk south along the western edge of the park, stand in her new lobby. A man brings it down, looks me square in the eye, asks, Are you Meg? I nod and he hands me the book, turns on his heel and walks away.
I send her a message: Thank you.
She responds: Yup.
A month later I pass them on the street.
We are all so busy avoiding puddles that we don’t see each other. It is only as we pass that I look up. I have to stop, pull off to the side and turn around and look again--my heart rattling in my chest. Everything in me suddenly alight with fear and anger. There is no one I dislike more. And no feeling I find more terrifying. I watch as she reaches for his hand and he pulls her in.
And a part of me is glad for her.
There was a cup that sat in our cupboard those last two months. Pink. With silver writing: Sorry I’m Not Sorry.
We had a fight. And it was terrible. And I behaved so badly. I said cruel and unkind things. And she did the same. And then I apologized and she placed a cup at the front of our cupboard.
SORRY I’M NOT SORRY.
Two roads diverged in a wood.
That pink cup sat there, front of the cupboard, for two months. A punctuation to our silence.
Bed bugs are ridiculous. In the face of really terrible conflict and disease and mass destruction, they are nothing. I know this. And yet, they wage their own small trench warfare, at night, under the cover of darkness, and we do our best not to lose our minds.
It’s that look that people give you when you tell them that you have them (or had them) that’s most upsetting. That look of fear and disgust and the slow, nearly imperceptible step backwards--the one that says you stay over there, away, and apart, from me. That invisible line we attempt to draw in an effort to protect and preserve. It’s alienation of the highest, quietest, order. We all know that anyone can get them, that it’s no one person’s fault--it has nothing to do with uncleanliness or clutter. We all know this, on an intellectual level. But god it feels good to rationalize why one person gets them and another does not. Because with that rationalization comes a sense of security, of safety, of superiority. Never mind that it’s all an illusion.
I am in a debt to everyone who opened up their home to me last year. To those who said never mind the bugs, I’ll sleep next to you anyways.* To my very dear and hilarious friend who began to refer to my roommate as a bedbug truther**--which, to this day, is the most succinct and honest assesment of the whole mess of six months. To the woman I live with now, who when I came to her two months in, and told her of my secret shame, didn’t shuffle away from me, but rather looked at me blankly and said, So? If we get them, we get them. And then we deal with them. For the knee-jerk reaction that was her compassion. And how it allowed me to take my first deep breath in eight months.
I learned so much last year. About landlords and leases and the blessing of sending documents via certified mail. I learned that the more obviously wrong a person is, the harder they will fight to defend their position (not everyone, of course). And that owning your mistakes is a grace-filled act. That three of the best words you can ever get comfortable with are: I screwed up. Followed by two more: I apologize.That the more you say them, the easier they become. And they solve so much--illuminate, even more. Because how a person takes in an apology is chock-a-block full of information. No one likes to be wrong, and really no one likes to admit it, which means the ability to do so, and do so well, is a modern-day superpower. One must be able to sit in discomfort. And our response to a failing is far more important than the failing itself. That some fights aren’t worth having. And some people aren’t worth fighting for. That there is no perfect time to begin a thing, there is only life in all it’s messy impermanence and the desire to try. To attempt.
And that sometimes you have to let yourself really a hate a person before you can actually forgive them.
*it's not that easy to get them. If you take proper precautions you will not. Two different friends stayed with me for a period of time--my friend Greg from Australia for a week, and my friend James from Florida for a weekend--and last I checked neither one of them had carried those bad boys with them back home.
**a truther is a term for a person who rejects things that are quite clearly true.