“Is everyone holding their phones in case I wanted to text you guys something and have you see it at once?” Ben Peryer (@benjaminnyc) sent that text to Kieran Dallison (@kierandallison), Zach Ames (@zachames), and me one early spring evening. I responded with a smiling selfie to announce my presence. Kieran chimed in as well, but Zach was preoccupied. “I’ll assume Z’s not far behind,” Ben proceeded, then dropped a bomb: “I’m moving to Denver with Justin.” A frowny emoji from Kieran, followed by a sad-faced Bitmoji that read FOR REAL. Then, a teary-eyed, frowny selfie from me, announcing my sadness. “For real,” Ben replied. “Like for real, for real?” Kieran continued. “April Fool’s was like a month ago.” We had been half-expecting this news after Ben’s boyfriend Justin (@justinhsmith) accepted an administrative position at Denver Public Schools a month earlier (a two-year residency), unsure if Ben would follow him or sever ties and stay put (since Denver is, to many of us, mile-high mediocrity). “For real for real. In July or August. Boyyyys, I’m really happy! This is exciting news!” “I know. I know! We know.” I replied. Poor Zach would have to catch up on all of this at once. And poor Ben…poor Ben was going to live in white, homogenous, yoga-pantsed Denver.
We all felt partially responsible for Ben’s departure, seeing as we each played some kind of role in his meeting Justin. A year prior, a handful of us went to Provincetown for the first time, and squeezed six people into a tiny two-bedroom. The initial five attendees were Kieran, Zach, Ryan (@ryanfitzgibbon), Daniel (@danielseunglee), and me, but there was an extra spot for the taking. Ryan suggested his pal Ben, whom the rest of us knew peripherally. He seemed funny, a little weird in a charming way, and certainly worthy of throwing into the mix for our week in the Cape. Just before the vacation, though, Ryan had to back out, so I proposed to the group that we invite Tripp (@trippppp), someone we all had met but didn’t know much about; I got unanimous “yeas.” Long story short: We all bonded immensely that week, especially Ben and Tripp. Back in New York, we went out dancing one night and Ben met Tripp’s roommate Justin. They flirted a little, but didn’t think much of it. A couple weeks later, Ben tagged along with me to my friend Carlos’ (@closalvarado) birthday party, and lo and behold, Justin was also in attendance. With enough liquid courage, they got cozy, shared their first kiss, and shortly thereafter were an official item. Just eight months after that, our Ben would follow Justin to a city he had never even visited. Within one year, Ben went from barely knowing us, to breaking our hearts.
Things weren’t improving on the home front. Here’s what life is like when you get bed bugs: You have to wash any clothing and bedding with hot water, then dry it on high heat. Anything that can’t be washed needs to be bagged up, labeled, and sent for special dry cleaning. First however, an exterminator needs to spray everything in your house with heavy-duty poison, and you have to bag up anything you don’t want sprayed (generally, clothing that you will otherwise wash to those heat specifics). There are three rounds of spraying, each spread ten days apart: The first spray kills the living bugs. The second one kills the ones that hatch after the first spray (before they have matured enough to reproduce), and the third one is a peace-of-mind spray, killing anything that may linger. In theory, you can move back into your apartment after the second spray—while still living out of garbage bags—and then you can start reclaiming your life after the final one. Our apartment looked like a war zone once we moved back in two weeks later—all of us afraid to put ourselves out as decoys, to see if the bugs had in fact disappeared. Whenever I would get home each day, I would put my messenger bag in the freezer, retrieve my pajamas from there as well, and quickly shower. Then I would put my dirty clothes in the freezer, select from a garbage bag the following day’s clothes, and place them in the freezer as well—all for assurance that no bugs would inhabit them. And I’m just getting started….
I pulled my bed away from the wall, and it now inhabited the entire walkable space in the tiny room. I fastened a double-sided moat of tape around my mattress, so that it would catch any bugs that tried creeping up. I also sprayed Raid around each leg of the bed, and made tape barriers on them, for added security. I slept in just my underwear, with a loose sheet over top me, so as to maximize the surface area any bugs might have for feasting. Some friends recommended I sleep fully clothed, but I didn’t want the bugs to only have my face as their source of food. I kept the light on every night, and curled the sheet around myself so that it wouldn’t obstruct my moat. I would fall asleep staring Heather in the eyes, trying to blame her for this, because it all felt inexplicable to me. Ten nights I spent this way, waiting for that exterminator to come back, and also wishing for Romeo back, if only to curl up in his lavish apartment, to have him cradle me, to have respite from this joke of an existence. I envied Ben, knowing he would get to escape bullshit things like this, like insurmountable cost of living, like rats, like metal bars on apartment windows, and body-to-body subway commutes. He could act his age in Denver, instead of being a pathetic 28-year-old man who slept each night with the lights on, praying to get through without letting the bed bugs bite.
I worked from home on the day of the third and final extermination spraying. We hadn’t seen any bugs in the ten days prior, and were eager to get that assurance spray done; it meant we could do our dry cleaning, wash our clothes, ideally not have to replace any furniture, and get on with our lives. We lived in a large building with dozens of units, so I had called the management company the day before to confirm the appointment; I wasn’t going to risk them forgetting about us. So, as the hours ticked away on the scheduled date, I called the company again, asking if they knew when an exterminator would arrive. “You’re not scheduled for an exterminator,” the woman on the other line told me. She was the same one with whom I had made the appointment, AND confirmed it. In a split second, I became brutal in a way I have never been: “WHAT THE FUCK DO YOU MEAN I DON’T HAVE AN APPOINTMENT? DID WE NOT SPEAK YESTERDAY TO CONFIRM THIS? HUH?” “Yes, sir, I do recall speaking yesterday.” “THEN WHY THE FUCK WOULD YOU TELL ME I HAVE AN APPOINTMENT WHEN YOU DIDN’T DO YOUR GOD DAMN JOB AND ACTUALLY SCHEDULE A FUCKING APPOINTMENT? WE SPOKE TWO WEEKS AGO TO SCHEDULE THIS APPOINTMENT. I AM TAKING TIME OFF WORK TO SIT ON MY ASS IN MY BUG-INFESTED APARTMENT SO THAT WE COULD FINISH THIS, SO THAT THE REST OF YOUR FUCKING BUILDING WON’T ALSO GET INFESTED. YOU COULDN’T FOLLOW THROUGH ON SOMETHING WE SPOKE ABOUT NOT ONCE, BUT TWICE? DO YOU KNOW WHAT IT’S LIKE TO HAVE TO LIVE OUT OF GARBAGE BAGS AND SLEEP WITH THE LIGHTS ON? HOW DO YOU EVEN HAVE A JOB?!” “Sir, you don’t have to yell.” “I FUCKING YELL WHEN SOMEONE LIES TO ME AND PUTS ME IN A COMPROMISED POSITION AND IS INCAPABLE OF DOING THE JOB I PARTIALLY PAY THEM TO DO. NOW TELL ME WHY THE FUCK THERE ISN’T A FUCKING EXTERMINATOR AT MY APARTMENT RIGHT NOW. HOW SOON CAN HE BE HERE TODAY, HUH?” “Sorry, sir, it takes a few days for us to schedule someone. The earliest is next Monday.” “ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME? LET ME SPEAK TO YOUR GOD DAMN MANAGER.” You tell me: Should I be proud of myself?
Six days later, we finally got the last spraying. We spent that extra week in the same compromised state, entirely miserable and avoiding the apartment except to sleep—an irony given that nighttime was when we were most susceptible. I worked from home another day to wash all of my clothes and bedding, then dry them on high heat. I was eager to unpack them and get my apartment back in an operable, livable state. My roommates were a few paces behind, still playing it safe for a couple weeks, wanting to be certain we were bug free. This is where bed bugs get really tricky, though, as you recover from their presence: You don’t know they’re totally gone unless you see one, or get bit. So if you don’t have those physical signs, you wait. And wait. And wait. Because they can go a while without food, and perhaps some are still unborn; after all, our 10-day window had lapsed on that final spray, and some remaining bugs might have reproduced and laid eggs. Simply put, the waiting-out is psychologically debilitating. But I knew I could only get on if I pretended they were gone. I got dinner with cousin Jenny (@approxmiately) a couple nights later, boasting to her about my purified apartment, and then walked her home to see the large bedroom she had just taken over at her own apartment; it looked like it had been professionally curated, as her taste is so sharp. I was so proud to see her beaming and glowing in this space. As she was explaining some component of the room, I felt an itch on my right shoulder. A familiar itch. I excused myself to the bathroom, peeled off my shirt, and examined it: A welt was coming in, with a small bite mark at center. (Quick aside: I wasn’t worried that I brought the bugs to Jenny’s, since bumps come in many hours after a bite.) I composed myself and hugged Jenny farewell, giving her some made-up excuse for leaving. As the anxiety swelled, I sauntered home, or at least to the place where I paid rent and stored my stuff.