I knew this bedbug thing was out of hand the day my girlfriend and I returned from a movie. I stepped in our front door, took off my coat, and as I hung it in the closet, she began to vacuum the seat of my corduroy pants. “Can’t be too careful,” she said.
Theaters, according to news reports, can be hideouts where bedbugs bide their time, waiting to hitch a ride to your home after the main feature is over. But as everyone knows, the mother ship of bedbugs is the hotel room.
My girlfriend enters a new hotel room with the caution of a bomb squad engineer approaching an unexploded artillery shell. She pulls the sheets from the corner of the bed and inspects the edges of the mattress for telltale red splotches. Using a flashlight she carries just for this purpose—I am not making this up—she gives the back of the bed’s headboard the gimlet eye.
Seams in wallpaper and the point where the carpet meets the wall are examined with great suspicion. Apparently the little buggers like cozy, dark places until you fall asleep and they can begin sucking your blood.
Our clothes are never permitted to be placed in a hotel’s dresser drawers. Suitcases are always raised high on a luggage rack—“Bellman, could we have a second one, please?”—and away from walls.
All of this is smart, of course, but it does evaporate some of the magic of checking into a hotel room. Instead of a cool, new environment, the hotel room becomes a place where unseen enemies lurk. I used to fear the thief at the door posing as a room service waiter. Now I worry about tiny bugs that will make me itch. And the fear is everywhere.
In Lithuania, a man uses a global map to plot reports of bedbugs in hotels. He has more than 20,000 reports in 12,000 locations.
The girlfriend’s bedbug protocol doesn’t end when we check out of our hotel room. When we return home, she insists none of our clothes be returned to our closets or dressers unless they’ve been washed or dry cleaned or at least put through a tumble of hot air in the dryer. Bedbugs, who can live years without feasting, apparently can’t survive 10 minutes in a dryer. Then she vacuums our bags thoroughly and sprays the suitcases with a type of poison.
The global scare has accomplished one thing: I now understand what my mother meant when she said, “Don’t let the bedbugs bite” as she tucked me in. I’m not sure she knew what it meant. And remember when hotels and movie theaters were fun places? We’ve surrendered ourselves to an enemy that we can’t even see.