I woke up itchy and alone. Jodie was lying in the bathtub wrapped head to toe in Saran wrap like a cocoon. She was wearing my scuba mask and holding a lighter and a spray bottle of rubbing alcohol.
“I can’t live like this,” Jodie said when she saw me. Her voice buzzed through the plastic.
“They’re just bugs,” I said.
“It’s my home,” Jodie said.
“We’re renting,” I said.
“Well it’s my bed at least,” Jodie said.
“And you’re gonna burn it all down,” I said.
“Yeah, maybe I should,” Jodie said.
At work I covered the bites on my neck when talking to people. I went to the bathroom and took off my shirt to scratch. In the mirror my eyes were dark blood-shot circles.
I sat in a stall and looked at pictures of my college girlfriend; her clean, pristine life; her bugless life. I had been that way. Once I had thought bed bugs were a myth, or at least an artifact of a more primitive age. I don’t know what I’d thought, actually. I just didn’t think about them at all. I could never get back there.
Eventually I fell asleep on the toilet. I spent half an hour dreaming of them crawling across me.
When I came out of the bathroom, one of the nurses stopped me. A concerned look. “Dr. Gobel needs to see you. He’s in his office.”
I wandered down the hall to the doctors’ wing. Dr. Gobel’s lab coat was bleached and starched, and his hair was feathered and combed. His oak desk was decorated with books. I imagined what his house looked like, polished wood floors where nothing could hide.
“We’re gonna have to let you go,” Dr. Gobel said.
“I know you have bed bugs,” Dr. Gobel said.
“You can’t fire me for bed bugs,” I said.
“We’re not firing you,” Dr. Gobel said. “We’re just ending your temp contract.”
“That’s firing me,” I said.
“It’s a hospital,” Dr. Gobel said. “It’s a health concern.”
“They don’t transmit disease,” I said.
“I probably got them here anyway,” I said. “There are a thousand beds, a hundred new people every day.”
“We’ve never had bed bugs,” Dr. Gobel said.
I told him to let me search the beds, but he called security instead.
I was asleep on the kitchen floor when the exterminator knocked. I showed him to the bedroom.
Jodie had turned the mattress and box spring up on their sides. The rug was pulled up, the dresser tipped over, the headboard taken out of the frame. The exterminator shined his flashlight in the corner and ran his gloved hands over a seam of the mattress. “Yep,” he said. “I think you’ve got bed bugs.”
“Why?” I said. “Why do you think that?”
“Here’s a cast skin,” the exterminator said.
“That’s a leaf,” I said.
“Here’s a fecal stain,” the exterminator said.
“That’s fuzz from a sock,” I said.
“What else could be biting you?” the exterminator said.
“You’ve come twice and I’m still getting bitten. You’ve never shown me a living bug.”
“Do you want me to get the dog?” the exterminator said.
“Fine,” I said
The exterminator brought in the dog, a fat beagle, and it sat next to the bed frame. “Yep,” the exterminator said. “That’s a positive. We can spray again, four fifty per room, but I’d suggest the heat treatment. Twenty-five hundred for the whole house.”
“Just forget it,” I said.
I was steaming the mattress when Jodie came home from work. Her face was even more hollowed out and slack than mine. She hadn’t slept.
“Did the exterminator come?” Jodie asked.
“It’s too expensive,” I said.
“So what?” Jodie said. “We just wait till they finally suck us dry?”
“It’s the last of my money,” I said. “That’s for my sailboat, my scuba certification.”
“You’ll just bring them on the boat,” Jodie said.
“Not if I don’t bring all this shit.” I waved my arms at her knickknacks and antique furniture.
“It’s not my fault.” Jodie whimpered a little. “You’re the one who brought them home.”
“It could’ve been you,” I said.
“There aren’t beds at the coffee shop,” Jodie said.
“There are couches,” I said. “Who cares where they came from. We can’t get rid of them because you can’t keep the house clean.”
“It doesn’t matter if I keep it clean,” Jodie said. “You’ll just carry them home from the hospital again.”
“Well we don’t have to worry about that anymore,” I said.
“I got fired.”
Jodie slumped in the corner and put her head in her hands. “Could you maybe call the landlord again? It’s his house. He should get rid of them.”
I kicked the mattress. “I’ve fucking called him thirty times,” I said. “You call him if you think he’ll change his mind.”
“I don’t know what else to do,” Jodie sobbed. “I really should burn it. I really might burn the whole house down.”
I rolled my eyes. “Maybe you should help me steam the room,” I said. “Maybe you should stop letting the covers touch the ground. Maybe you should keep your clothes in the fucking vacuum bags instead of on the floor.” I threw the steamer handle at the wall. It tipped over and water spilled everywhere.
I went out to my car and backed out into the sun. I turned the heater on high and sat sweating until the seat was soaked.
I drove to Kansas City. Blaire lived in a suburban neighborhood, an old house refinished or a new house built to look old, I couldn’t tell. It was blue with a white porch. Maroon curtains hung in the windows. Bed bug sanctuaries, I thought.
“What are you doing here?” Blaire asked.
“I had to see you,” I said. “I wanted to catch up.”
“This isn’t fair,” Blaire said. “It took a long time to get over you. You can’t just show up like this.”
“Is that why you’ve never written me back?” I said.
“Yes,” Blaire said. “I never read them.”
“Can I tell you what they said?”
“I guess the Coast Guard diver thing didn’t work out?” Blaire had finally let my hand rest on hers. Her voice wavered.
“The contract’s too long,” I said. “How’s med school?”
“I’m done actually,” Blaire said. “I’m in residency now.”
“This is a nice house,” I said. “Especially for a student.”
“Residents make a salary,” Blaire said. “Plus, my dad cosigned.”
“What’s your plan now?” Blaire said.
“I just want to scuba,” I said. “And live on a sailboat. Being an instructor pays well.”
“So go do it,” Blaire said.
“I have a lease,” I said. “Maybe when it runs out.”
“Like a commitment has ever stopped you before,” Blaire said.
“What do you mean?” I had my arm around her now.
“You were in college, you had a lease, and you were dating me when you left to join the
Coast Guard,” Blaire said. “You even had a cat.”
“Yeah,” I said. “And maybe I made a mistake.” I kissed her, and she kissed me back, and we made our way to her bedroom wrapped up in one another. Her bed was covered with the quilt I’d given her for her birthday six years before, and its corners reached down to the floor as casually as I used to be. While we had sex, I noticed the decorations and framed photos and shelves, all the same as I remembered.
I was having a wonderful dream of a 1950s paradise. Rows of new houses dotted uniform lawns, and contented housewives vacuumed manufactured carpets and smooth baseboards. It smelled of fresh construction, treated wood and recently invented chemicals. A parade of trucks drove down the street spraying DDT, and the children played in the mist like they would sprinklers. There wasn’t an insect in sight.
The dream was cut short by the light and Blaire screaming. “What the hell is that?” A small bug crawled across the blanket.
Blaire fished for a book and started swatting at it, but it was too late. It had laid a million eggs already, broadcasted its pheromones to every bug within a mile, called on whatever magic they possess, I have no idea. I dressed and left her house. She had them now. She could kill them all, and she’d still have them.
By the time I got home, Jodie had burned the house down. Not to ashes, the frame was still standing, but it was flaky and black and hissed with steam. I kept driving south.
In Little Rock I passed the Luxury Inn. Jodie and I had stayed there once and walked along the river. We’d listened to music, bought appetizers, and had drinks on a patio. We’d held hands and kissed in public. We could’ve picked them up there. There’d be no way of knowing.
I drove through Mississippi, and in the delta I began to drift in and out of sleep. I kept seeing them on the seats and my pants. I kept slapping at them and swerving.
I reached Mobile and sold my car. I’d written “make me an offer” in white chalk, and someone had given me three thousand dollars cash. He drove off, and I walked to the marina.
The sun was setting. A grimy sailboat had a for-sale sign tacked on its dock, and the owner was mopping the deck. I held up the cash. “I’ll take it,” I said. The man counted the money and gave me the title.
I stripped all my clothes off and threw them in the bay. I jumped in the water and rubbed my skin all over, then I went back into my boat and lay on the bed. The cabin got dark, and I shut my eyes. I still felt them crawling.