"Diana Lively is naked under her shiny yellow raincoat."
So goes the first line of my first novel.
Sounds super-sexy doesn’t it?
Except when you discover Diana’s in the shower, washing her daughter’s hair. This, after catching her toddler with a packet of mail-order Walking Stick Insects her brother’s ordered in the mail.
Okay, so maybe this character’s apple doesn’t fall too far from my own neurotic tree. I wrote this scene in 1999, in England. A friend called on October 31st to warn me that headlice were a chronic (as in, impossible-to-eradicate) problem in our children’s schools.
I went beserk. I swear, I’d rather have been told our house was haunted by dead Amway representatives seeking to convert the living to multilevel marketing.
By the end of that evening I had vacuumed all the couches, washed every sheet and towel in the house and put my kids through their own little carwash/comb out. Scariest Halloween ever. And yes, I might just have been wearing a raincoat and rubber gloves.
A cartoon in a recent The New Yorker features a man covered with red welts, sitting up in bed and talking to a vampire, saying, “The bedbugs got to me first.”
In the September 27th issue, the cover itself features two lifesized bedbugs having a post-coital smoke.
Clearly, vampires and Wall Street bankers aren’t the only bloodsuckers in the public imagination. Full disclosure. I am utterly fascinated, horrified and quite possibly addicted to all sources of information regarding these tiny invaders.
In the interest of saving you time, I offer some facts I've gleaned from my research.
Consider it an early Halloween gift.
- Bedbugs look like appleseeds, only smaller, and range in color from light brown to reddish black.
- They prefer to nest in the crevices at the front of your mattress or behind the headboard, for proximity to their next dining opportunity.
- They don’t carry any disease (unless you count mental illness or social suicide) but they do anesthetize you with a numbing agent so you won’t wake up and ruin their picnic.
- They can live several weeks, perhaps up to a year, without a ‘host meal.’
- They ‘hitch’ rides in pant cuffs and other clothing, and don’t distinguish between “clean” and ‘dirty’ places.
- Heat is their enemy. Thus, urban dwellers are paying thousands of dollars to have whole rooms wrapped in plastic and heated to 113˚.
- Always stow your luggage on a stand that is not touching any wall. When you get home, take everything, including tennis shoes, and give them a tumble in your dryer (on high) for 30 minutes.
- Leave your luggage in the garage or vaccum it well and store it in a sealed garbage bag. Wipe down toiletries that can’t go in the dryer or consider a travel bag you store with the luggage and don’t bring in the house.
- If you’re buying used books or things that can’t go in the dryer, try to either heat them or isolate them in plastic for a couple of months.
- In the summer, temperatures in your car’s trunk can reach 140 degrees, so just leave your bags there for an easy fix.
- Never ever leave your house. Do not admit visitors without stripping them in the garage, hosing them down and washing their clothes. (Okay, scientists are split on this last measure, which might strike some as extremist. On the other hand, you can never be too careful.)
Despite the fact that I live in a smallish city in Florida and don’t travel much, the mere thought of bedbugs can adrenalize me for hours. The ‘purges’ I’ve done on our four bedroom house ought to be classified as "Tai Bo meets Inspector Clouseau trying to defuse an Improvised Explosive Device."
I have a confession to make. I do get a slight rush from circling my own hygenic wagons to avert an unlikely attack.
Well-meaning friends ask why I do this to myself.
My answer? Because “I can,” of course.
After all, in the scale of things to fear, bedbugs are the ‘small stuff” psychologists advise you not to sweat. In a perverse twist on that logic, I say, small stuff are the very best things to sweat. Think about alternative fears, the ones your clothes dryer can’t eradicate. Like, say, oh, cancer, my kids in cars with teenage drivers, your father’s heart ailment, financial meltdowns or any number of real catastrophes that befall real people every day.
Besides, information is your friend.
Prevention is 99% of the cure.
It’s like knowing about condoms in the mid-1980s, when everyone was terrified of AIDS. (Of course, I'm not comparing the tragedy of AIDS with the minor inconvenience of little creatures that don't even pass along illness.) Still, it was a public health emergency, and at first, you had to hunt down the science explaining the disease. No one knew the exact cause and several of my friends, males, I must say, put their heads in the sand.
When danger came calling, I went to the library. (archaic: pre-internet, a building with shelves of books where information was printed on cards kept in tiny boxes.) Anyway, back then, I became a one-woman crusade for condoms, condoms and more condoms.
“You’re such a buzz-killer,” my friends would say. “Don’t you know, having sex with a condom is like wearing a raincoat in the shower?”
Maybe so. And maybe focusing on bedbugs instead of true perils is just another raincoat, interfering with my 'real' experience of the natural world. On the other hand, take it from me, there are certain things in this life we could use help evading. Labor, for example, music by Alvin and the Chipmunks or every version of portable bathrooms ever invented. Now, hey, there's an excuse to break out the rain boots, slicker and rubber gloves if I ever saw one.
Sheila Curran is the author of two novels, DIANA LIVELY IS FALLING DOWN and EVERYONE SHE LOVED.