We go to Boston each year for three days just before Christmas because my husband and I went to school up there and love the town, and this time of year, the nice hotels have cheap rooms. We usually stay near Copley Square, a beautiful square surrounded by two large gothic cathedrals and the Boston Public Library. This year as we went from restaurant to restaurant eating oysters and clam chowder and drinking martinis, I was plagued by the fear that our hotel room had bed bugs.
I’d woken up with a few bites on my hip and stomach. They say bed bugs usually leave three bites, which they call breakfast, lunch and dinner. I had five. I figured there were two, and the second bug must have had a compelling reason to leave early before he could eat his dinner.
“I think the room has bed bugs,” I told Bruce as I held up my pajama top to show him my bites.
“No, it doesn’t,” Bruce said, without looking up.
“How do you know?” I said. “I’ve been bitten.”
“You don’t have bed bugs,” he said. “It’s a nice hotel.”
A friend recently told me that a telltale sign of whether a hotel has bed bugs is if you find tiny streaks of blood on the sheets. I imagined the blood came out of the bed bug when someone inadvertently lay down on it. What I couldn’t understand is why a hotel bed would have blood-stained sheets from the previous guest.
“I don’t know,” my friend said. And then as if to resurrect her authority on the subject, she said, “They live in the mattress.”
I peeled back the layers of sheets, looking first at the mattress underneath and then at the fitted sheet and the flat sheet to see if I could spot a streak of blood. I saw nothing on the sheets but spotted a few brown spots on one of the pillow cases, but I remembered that Bruce had propped up our baby, Eddie, against that pillow when he fed him last night. The brown bits were remnants of Eddie’s dinner.
I walked into the bathroom to inspect the bites on my belly and back and tried to chalk them up to the overzealous scratching I do each winter when the skin around my waist gets excessively dry, causing me to claw at it. But the markings seemed too organized for that.
We left the hotel to do some Christmas shopping and get breakfast. We then did some more shopping and met up for lunch, separated again and reconvened for dinner, like two skiers moving down a hill who keep separating when they see a cluster of trees in their path but reconnect again after clearing them. We do the same thing every year except this year, we had Eddie, and we were tossing him back and forth between us like a hot potato. Whoever had him was unable to shop. He didn’t like sitting in his carriage all day, understandably, and so you usually wound up sitting down on a bench or the floor and holding him up as he tried to walk. He likes walking while holding on to the back of his stroller like a walker. Yesterday, Bruce followed Eddie as he pushed the stroller for four laps around Macy’s men’s department while I looked at cashmere sweaters for my sister.
When we got back to the hotel, I read a sign posted in the hallway near our room regarding construction that was going on down the hall. They had erected a wall of wood and sheetrock to block off a section of the hotel for renovations and upgrades. I initially thought it was an elaborate ruse to cover up the fact that they were exterminating our wing of the hotel for bed bugs. I was relieved to see a pile of sheetrock strips on the floor of the hallway when we returned that night, an indication that real construction work was being done – until I thought the strips might be to plug up holes in the walls and underneath baseboard moldings to keep out the bed bugs like one would try to keep out mice.
“I don’t have a single bite,” Bruce said, looking at me like he does when I say I feel a lump on the side of my face near my ear or that I felt a pang in my underarm that I fear is a tumor.
That night, Bruce and I switched places in bed to see if he would get bitten. The following morning, I had two more bites, this time on my upper belly. He had none.
When we returned to New Jersey, I emptied our suitcase and dumped all of the clothes onto the floor of the laundry room. I put the sweaters in the dryer on two cycles, because I heard heat kills bed bugs, and I threw the rest of the clothes in the washer. I didn’t want to wash the sweaters before throwing them in the dryer for fear of shrinking them. I’d hate to ruin all of our best traveling sweaters in a momentary bout of hysteria.
After washing, drying and folding five loads of laundry – I threw in all of the baby’s toys, blankets and crib sheets as well – I started to wonder whether it was possible my winter eczema actually could have caused little bumps to develop on my stomach and back. I thought about an incident that happened when I was in sixth grade. I was scared to be in the house alone and so I called up my parents, who were at my grandparents’ house, to say I heard noises that sounded like someone was in the house. I had been doing my social studies homework, which entailed cutting out newspaper articles and pasting them onto pieces of colored cardboard. The kitchen was littered with pieces of crumpled up newspaper like the floor of a bird cage. As it turned out, the noise I’d heard in the house was the sound of my own feet as I walked back and forth on the scraps of newspaper. I knew I wasn’t imagining the little dots on my belly and back, but there were a lot of things it could have been aside from bed bugs.
When I came up from the laundry room, I looked over at Eddie in his playpen. He’d been sleeping there for a few hours now, which was unusual. As I stood over him, he began to stir and woke up. I lifted him out of the playpen and the first thing I noticed was the strong smell of poop. The next thing I saw was a little mark on his cheek about the size of a bug bite.