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by Michelle Wilson

Bedbugs and a lesson in the value of things

The first to go were the futon and bed frame. After dragging them through the foyer and bumping them down the stairs, they collapsed into a neat pile on the street below. Bedbugs, notoriously adverse to sunlight, prefer to suck your blood under cover of darkness, while you sleep. Now in the cheering, triumphant light of dawn I couldn't help but make the association with vampires, and half expected thin wisps of smoke to rise up from between the slats.

The futon was no big loss. I'd been snoozing on that collegiate excuse of a bed for three years now. Time to buy myself a real bed at the mattress store around the corner.

That, incidentally, was the next to go, when no less than three weeks after it was delivered — and despite multiple layers of chemicals shellacking my walls like amber — I discovered the bloodsuckers were still sucking. Not without sadness, I watched eight hundred dollars soar out the window.

Cleanliness is of paramount importance when it comes to eradicating cimex lectularius. In the process of scouring my studio, I trashed every last bit of clutter that might obstruct the path of the exterminator, a slouching, grumpy sourpuss who was becoming a regular pal. The detritus included clothes I should never have bought, Christmas presents I couldn't bring myself to re-gift, fancy cleaning supplies I never used, boxes, bags, newspapers, and other hidden space fillers. It was like spring-cleaning, I assured myself. Only it was snowing outside.

Four months later the parasites continued to cling on. When I discovered the entire building was becoming infested, I knew it was time to abandon my Upper East Side studio for a fresh start across the river. There was no way these guys were hitching a ride; so before fleeing, I dumped all of my furniture. They were cheap, albeit charming quasi-antiques that had served me well:  a solid oak desk I'd had since college, a bookshelf with delicately hinged cabinets I'd haggled over at a junk shop around the corner, a colt-sized dining table with extraordinarily comfy matching chairs, a piano bench with a green vinyl cushion — all constructed of creaking, broken-down wood, riddled with the kind of cracks and crevices bedbugs love. With the help of my boyfriend, we shuttled these relics out onto the street, where they were snatched up before I had the chance to scrawl "BEDBUGS" on them in blood.

A week after settling into my new pad in Jersey City I found a bedbug the size of my pinky nail squished under the rug of my new closet. It's a miracle I didn't leap out the window.What did leap out were many other things. Two months (and another gazillion treatments) later out went my new Ikea bed frame, along with a matching dresser. Out went a new set of chairs.

How did I get out alive? I would ask myself years later. This was how:  Before moving yet again I would kiss good-bye every last thing I owned. I got a head start by packing up my most treasured mementoes:  irreplaceables like photo albums and diaries from fifth grade, a pricey painting and some posh china I'd inherited from my grandparents. Bedbugs can live up to a year-and-a-half without feeding, so I mummified these beloved objects in plastic and entombed them in a Chelsea storage bin with the idea of digging them out again after a three-year slumber.

After that I tossed my entire library — a collection I'd amassed over the course of a decade. I loved my writer-friends; so this was the hardest thing I had to do. Turning over each and every book, I flipped through the pages and searched for any photographs or personal notes I might have slipped inside. When I came to my tattered copy of The Divine Comedy, chock full of post-it notes and comments scribbled in the margins, and I recalled how the introduction and accompanying editor's commentary had fired up a network of lights in my brain as vast and bright as a constellation, I began to cry. Not just a little sniffling here and there, but big, fat tears lumbering down my cheeks. It was the same with a shelf-full of the Shakespeare plays, the Hesse novels, the Karen Horney books, and the Camus. I tossed a hardcover collection of the Sophocles Tragedies given to me by one of my dearest friends. Then there was the Simone De Beauvoir and the Tolstoy and the Flaubert and the great big art books from the Louvre and the Musee D'Orsay (okay, maybe the Musee D'Orsay could go).

Not long after that I jettisoned my new plastic-wrapped Ikea mattress and a cart that had temporarily served as a desk. Whatever could go went. It seemed I was constantly in the motion of throwing away, bent over at the waist and swinging like a modern dancer recreating Martha Graham.

Yet there was something liberating in this purge. If there was a silver lining to being continuously eaten alive, then it was that I came to understand how little I actually needed. The perk of living a stripped down, minimalist existence was the ability to turn away from things and toward life itself. Not that I had ever been very materialistic, but I had once enjoyed being surrounded by pretty objects, and to a degree even defined myself by them. My modest stash of paintings, photographs, knick-knacks, and doodads had served as mirrors:  objects I had chosen that, every time I looked at them, reflected back my own personal taste, reminding me who I was. Now when I surveyed the echo chamber of my apartment I had no point of reference. And, contrary to what I had expected, it was liberating. I had nothing but myself now to guide me through my life.

The night before abandoning yet another ship, I tore apart the dining table and remaining chairs and trashed them, along with my stereo and the bulk of kitchen paraphernalia:  plates, cups, cooking ware, silverware, spices, food. Then I hauled out my clothes — a wardrobe I'd worked on for what felt like eons.

The next morning after showering and dressing (in an outfit I'd bought the day before, sealed in a plastic bag, and stored in the fridge overnight), I tossed all toiletries:  shampoo and conditioner, hairbrush, toothbrush, towels, soap, and stripped off the shower curtain. Out went the coffee cup and coffee maker and dishes I'd used for breakfast (no need to wash!). Out went my inflatable mattress and bedclothes. And, finally, out went the cleaning supplies.

At noon I left the apartment with nothing save the clothes on my back and a few credit cards. The keys to my new studio, one stop away on the Path train, were waiting for me with the doorman. It was drizzling outside so I swung by a store and picked up an umbrella. Ambling toward the subway, I felt magnificently light. Minus the books and a few coveted outfits, in the end, discarding all of that stuff hadn't been hard at all, but exhilarating. I felt proud of my ability to part with so much. What a profoundly materialistic society we lived in. Yet in the end, who really needed all of those things? Not I!

When I arrived at my new studio it was clean and empty as expected. I would start from scratch. Bring in only what was absolutely essential. It would be fun. Meanwhile, I was tired from the morning's heavy lifting and instinctively glanced around for something to sit on. But, of course, there was only the floor. Then I was thirsty. Not a drinking container in sight. A wave of panic hit me. What if nature called? Any toilet paper? Uh, oh. Already I was mechanically reaching for things I hadn't yet realized I needed. The body's wants and desires were moving way ahead of the brain's assessment and ability to provide. What else was I missing that I hadn't yet noticed?

I hurried out the door to the local drug store to stock up on the most urgently needed supplies first. And then I spent the next three years replacing at least half of everything I had lost.

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Articles in this Issue

Reversing the Culture of Destruction, by Anthony M. Tung
Family of Man, by Marc Mewshaw
Aural Photographs, by Alissa Tallman
Historic Williamsburg, by T.M. Pugh
Garbage Land, by Elizabeth Royte
Entomology, by Michelle Wilson
Home Economics, by John Darling
Linguistics, by Richard Lederer, Ph.D.
February 2008


Michelle Wilson graduated from Bennington College with a BA in Comparative Literature. It has been 1,795 days since she's been bitten by a bedbug.

Where loss is found.

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