Of course, bed bugs are a problem in other Canadian cities. I’ve woken up to red welts on my arms and legs before now, in both Victoria and Vancouver. It’s hard not to notice that we’re in the middle of a bed bug “epidemic” in many major cities. “Recolonization” seems like a better word, though, as this temporary respite from bedbugs is a sixty-year, first-world aberration from the rest of human history. They seem to me like an antique problem, but I know they were always with us, in the pesticide-resistant reservoirs of the third world.
But people tell me that Toronto is bad. Toronto is crawling. The bedbug registry shows a city hazy with the little, rust-coloured squares that indicate reports.
I was at a branch of the Toronto Public Library, using the wireless from one of the upholstered bucket seats when I began to itch. In the bathroom I had a good scratch, and when I looked in the mirror I saw huge, spreading red patches across the small of my back. They were bites. They were definitely bites, though I hadn’t noticed the creep of the creature’s feet, only the aftermath. Apparently they inject you with saliva that dilates your capillaries, thus improving blood-flow, but also anesthetizing you against the pain. One could be biting you this very minute, and you wouldn’t feel it.
Later that day I heard D say “what’s this?” from the bedroom, and when he brought me the little guy—glowing rust-red, swollen with bloody satiety—I said, optimistically, it can’t be a bed bug. It’s. It’s the wrong shape? It’s too big? It’s not a bed bug!
It was a bed bug.
What do we do? We vacuum. We shake diatomaceous earth over our baseboards and bedding. We wash. We contemplate the hundreds and hundreds of books on our shelves, the hundreds and hundreds more in our storage unit, and we wonder. Our skin crawls. Every nerve-twitch, every itch seemed to indicate assault by a tiny carnivore, or his traverse of our bodies. We wait to see if my little hitch-hiker had any friends, or children. So far, so lucky.
At the Laundromat D keeps running into a woman who cooks her entire wardrobe and all her bedding in the driers. An hour on high will kill them, she says. But it’s not as though they stay gone, and D’s seen her three times, at least, doing the same thing.
I’m writing this post in a Starbucks. I have resigned myself to the possibility that the chair in which I sit is infested. The two dozen bites I’ve received in this city—on three different occasions—were from places like this: two different Starbucks, and the branch library.
Like a lot of people, I hadn’t thought much about bedbugs until about five years ago, but now I wonder about books and movies from the past: how many unmentioned bites were there in Middlemarch or Little Women? Let alone Sister Carrie or Eliot’s “Preludes” or The Rape of the Lock? All those Vaudevillians and traveling salesmen and Harvey Girls in the old movies? Rick’s Café Americain? The Scarlet Pimpernel? Bedbugs, I bet you.
Which is why, after the initial paranoia and revulsion, I’m interested in their return. They’ve changed my relationship with our recent history, because they contaminate the ephemera I used to collect, the secondhand furniture, the old books, the tablecloths and tea towels I once looked for at Goodwill. They’re messengers from a past that’s not kitsch or vintage or retro, unsentimental reminders of the poverty and vulnerability that we would prefer to deny, or forget.
Because you can’t see them, but you know they’re around, resisting nostalgia the way they resist DDT. They seem to say to us, Retro? I’ll show you retro. Scratch scratch scratch.