The answer is yes–I, too, have spent hours online looking at photos of engorged bed bugs. It has been an exceptionally warm summer–which, from what I have heard, is perfect feasting weather. Bed bugs have gripped both the imagination and the tender flesh of city dwellers.
Thing is, I’ve always had a perverse fascination with outbreak hysteria. And this feels like a real, old fashioned pandemic. I’ve enjoyed imagining it is 1890 and the only respite from the rampage is a doctor-mandated trip to Saranac Lake to take the airs. The days before antibiotics were –no doubt– grim. But I am awestruck by the rare photographs of smiling people from the Victorian era. Given what was going on in their underwear, they must have been very strong.
Growing up, my brothers and I had a fondness for discussing scourges. We swapped stories, like the one about the oblivious swimmer who arose from a murky lake to discover that he was covered with leeches. Even more ghastly and wonderful, we thought, was the antiquated health benefit of treating leg-rot with these same bloodsuckers.
Everyone in my family worked in medicine, so mealtime conversation revolved around scientific advances and oddities in the natural world. After dinner, my brothers and I would play our version of Bible dipping. But in place of Scripture, we would flip open random pages of our stepfather’s medical textbooks. Each page presented a new, gruesome disorder. Whoever got the most frightening photo won. Highlights included: an enormous foot swollen by Guinea worms and a tumor with hair and teeth. Penile disorders were perennial crowd pleasers but on a bad night, the best we would get were some horrid rashes.
A week ago, my manfriend and I went to Cape Cod. I was excited– I enjoy ingesting filter feeders such as clams and oysters, and there’s nothing like liberating meat from an exoskeleton. There were no reports of West Nile in the area, and we had a lovely afternoon at the beach, which was delightfully free from medical waste.
Our room at the bed and breakfast was quaint–decorated with calico wallpaper and, judging by the smell, free of black mold. That evening, as I lay in bed reading; I saw a tiny, translucent, round bug hiking across the sheets. Without much thought, I flicked the voyager to the deep-pile rug. Only later would I learn that what I’d seen was a repulsively named bed-bug “nymph.”
Throughout the endless night, I was stabbed repeatedly by something that felt like a fondue fork. I scratched and marveled at my companion’s ability to sleep through the assault. For such a laid-back place, I thought, Cape Cod mosquitoes are quite aggressive. But in the morning, the welts told a different story. Because of my early armchair entomology, I instantly recognized the tell-tale cluster formation. I had become a casualty of the bed-bug epidemic. After shaking our fists at the proprietress, we packed our bags and sped out of town.
Now, at home, I’ve spent two days washing everything, including my luggage, in scalding hot water. Meanwhile, it feels like tiny thistles have been ground into the skin on my belly, ankles, and (especially disconcerting), the nape of my neck. I haven’t developed any new bites, but dormant larvae may have hitched a ride in our moccasins or nestled in our Scrabble board. I must wait out the ten-day gestation period to see if any newly hatched Cimex Lectularius intend to open a souvlaki stand in my bed.
My lurid fascination with plagues, pandemics, outbreaks, and infestations, has been significantly diminished by this in-the-flesh encounter. Even if I imagine myself sewing doilies and listening to one of those gramophones with a trumpet-like speaker, there’s not much romance left to the whole idea of blights and plagues. Unlike the smiling, stoical Victorians, I am, officially, a wimp.
Rebecca Bazell is a New York-based writer. She is currently writing a memoir entitled “Lost at Sea.”