Sunday, March 12, 2006

Insult to Injury

Goodnight. Don’t let the ________ _____.

Apartment 10 was a real find. In budget, only two floors to walk up and prime East Village location--you couldn’t swing a dead cat without hitting a hipster. Once signed for, it held four roommates, soon fast friends.

One guarded an empty truck at night, hoping to jumpstart his film career. One interned at a separate indie film outfit. Another worked at a theater company on a stipend. The last, me, sold her soul to the devil for an advertising gig that paid $27,000 a year. With that, I was the breadwinner. We all came from so-called “top ten” schools, but apparently, nobody cared but us.

We congregated in Apartment 10 at night to swap tales, green graduates discovering life lessons on the L train each morning. Not bad for our first year beyond the bubble, we’d thought. We’d watch The West Wing, read scripts the boys brought home, make Hamburger Helper together. We were astonished that life was as easy as it was, that we all got along, that our shower schedules miraculously worked out, that while we weren’t eating well, we weren’t exactly going hungry.

This city, this life, was what kept our mothers up at night? This wasn’t so hard, we’d thought. This was even kind of fun. We went, puffed with the satisfaction of well we were doing, how we had somehow discovered the world of entry-level in New York was not nearly what everyone made it out to be, smug for weeks.

It would be far more dramatic to assert that one gray morning we woke up, the skies shifted and everything changed, but that’s not quite true. It was more familiar and usual than that. Just one hot evening. Just like all the others. Just an ordinary day, like everyone says, it was an ordinary day, then tragedy struck and we were forever changed.

I traipsed across town with Annabella to my first business (read: free!) dinner. Somewhere between 47th and 49th street I stopped, in need of adjustment. Cloth was chafing my ankle and right where my new sock dug into my calf, it itched. So bad, in fact, it felt a bit like poison ivy. I rubbed against the offending spot for relief, fished in my handbag for my cell (also brand new, now that I supposedly needed one for work) to check the time and my empty inbox, and continued to walk.

Not two steps later, I had to stop again. I pulled up my jeans to find at least seven angry-looking mosquito bites form a constellation of sorts, the lowest point of which I had just made twice as big by scratching.

Annabella pouted in pointy heels. “What’s the problem?”

I scratched, letting my ponytail block her view of my leg. “Oh nothing. I just have all these mosquito bites.”

She frowned, “How did you get mosquito bites in the city?”

I replied, “I must have gotten them last weekend at Tyler’s house.”

She clicked her heels and continued her disapproving scowl. "Don't scratch."

At her expression's urging, I swore to wear bug-spray at every pool for the rest of the summer. And stop scratching. And limit my time in Pennsylvania, period. That would surely prevent future discomfort and embarrassing itching, right? She agreed it would.

She was wrong. I was wrong.

Over the next several months, all roommates of Apartment 10 became covered with mosquito bites. Our ankles, our wrists and our necks teemed with red welts. We tried to laugh it off, shift the blame to summer, spiders, stress, anything but what it really was. One night, we watched helplessly as a newscast finally shook our denial. Through red lipsticked lips, the coiffed reporter leered at us as she delivered the fatal blow.

“An infestation of bedbugs is hitting metropolitan areas across the nation, particularly in areas of construction and hotels.”

Then a close-up of a flat brown bug, bloated with blood.

I immediately clutched the computer with slick hands, cradled it in my lap, and I clicked. On instance after instance after instance of bedbugs infiltrating the city. Yahoo. Google. MSN. Posh hotels, cruddy hostels, apartments in every borough. It was true. Dear God, it was true.

“We have bedbugs,” one of us, I can't remember who, finally said in a trembled voice.

I felt, immediately, dirty and disgusting. I tore off the bedsheets and crammed them into the trash. The pillows and duvet weren’t as disposable so I firmly instructed the cleaners to immerse them in boiling water for as long as possible, until the very moment of fiber disintegration. Only then could I be sure they were safe and bug-free. I wrapped duct-tape around the floor posts of my bed, peeling the paint on the antique slats (a makeshift adaptation of coating the frame with oil, supposedly popular at the turn of the century). I encased my mattress in vinyl, squeaky and unbearably warm, so that whatever was inside would never get out and whatever was outside could never come in.

The exterminators sprayed our apartment after we gave it a deep, crevice-examining cleaning. Thin toxic film coated our furniture and our throats for days after, leaving a sickly sweet scent hanging in the air. But things only got worse. We learned quickly that the bugs weren’t promoted nor affected by our cleanings, our sprayings and our precautions. There was construction hammering the apartments directly above us, mice were crawling out to find new homes, and bedbugs were riding on the mice, a free taxi with a meal plan, as the bugs house-hunted. Vermin begat vermin.

We heard through our broker, as we desperately searched the housing market, that the entire block had been affected. We saw many, many other apartments, none of which would fit all four of us the way we had been accustomed to (four bedrooms and two baths—one for the girls and one for the boys) within our price range. We came to a heartbreaking ultimatum. Drop one of the roommates on the street with nowhere to live, or stay where we were.

Six sprayings later and nothing had changed. I took to the loveseat, my legs hanging off the edge, ankles chattering together in the midnight cold.

Sleeping was a luxury I did not have for nearly 14 months. As I lay prone and began the descent into unconsciousness, an errant edge of the bedspread or light gust from the air conditioning would inevitably brush against my skin, and immediately I’d shoot up like a rocket with my teeth bared, slapping my hands on the blanket, violently brushing them across my pajamas, snatching the pillows and slamming them against the wall in a one-woman pillow fight, shrieking, “Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God!”

There were times I had to leave work because the bites turned into a rash across my neck. Once, as my face pinked in embarrassment at presenting to the higher-ups, the creeping blush enacted a horrendous reaction with the bites. I was sent home.

I tried to make light of it, but nobody understood. Their logic was relatable. Bugs arrived when food was out. Bedbugs must have come because we left sticky crumbs in our beds, never washed our sheets, never showered ourselves. No matter how we countered to friends, family and coworkers--pointing them to the news reports, directing them to the internet, or illustrating how rigid we were with cleaning and washing and wiping that surgery could have easily been performed on the floors, they never really believed us. We were repellent, and that was that. Further, we were pink across our wrists and necks and we scratched all the time. People stopped coming over and we became a laughing stock. Stupid dirty kids living in an East Village slum.

Our moms now had a reason to be panic-stricken. They had a reason to be kept up at night, terrifying nightmares and anxiety keeping them from slumber. And so did we.

Seasons changed. Our fate didn't. Walking in the summer was hellish as sweat only spread the problem. Though in the winter, scratching the parched skin tore instead of providing relief.

A roommate moved out, another moved in, we all started screaming at each other since none of us had a solution. We pleaded with the exterminator to make it right, we yelled at our landlord, we fantasized about getting a lawyer. Apartment 10 became the innermost circle of hell, our punishment for thinking we could make an easy life in the city was to be sucked dry by unseen creatures of the night. To flail in agony all day at just the mere mention of the word "bed".

Our neighbors had turned over more times than we could count at this point because of the problem. We were the idiots who stayed, because we thought it would all go away, because part of us didn't really believe, even after months of this, that it was really happening to us.
One day, the roommate who worked at the film outfit, handed me a dog-eared an article.

It spoke of the last neighbors that we remembered, girls from Yale living in East Village squalor. They were suing, they were winning, and they were quoted. They had moved to greener, bedbug-free pastures. And the story of their struggle, our struggle, was in The New Yorker.

After the disbelief that we actually knew someone highlighted in the esteemed pages before me subsided, I was suddenly struck. I turned my head to my roommate to share my thought, and without missing a step; he beat me to the punch.

“We were this close,” he said in a low voice. “This close.”

“Yeah,” I finished. “We were this close…to getting published in The New Yorker.”

After all that we had been through, this was for me what stung the most. Living in a slum, lack of sleep and money, roommate relationships and cockeyed optimism deteriorating more each day--all of that was somehow manageable to a degree. At least it wasn't a shot in the heart, a reminder that I was slipping further away from success and my dreams than even when I had graduated--that I had taken a step back and was just fumbling to recover. But...this...this...

This was adding insult to injury.


Laura said...

The writing is impressive. Good luck getting quoted in The New Yorker.

GeminiWisdom said...

You had me itching. Loved te writing. As usual.

missy said...

Well written, K!

Sorry about the bites. I've had them when I hired a caravan for a camping trip. Nasty!

Anonymous said...

hey guys! Found a place where you can make some extra cash. Just put in your
zip code and up will pop a bunch of places where you can make some extra cash. I live in a small town and found several.

Jada's Gigi said...

Definitley feeling itchy! :) Good story.

Anonymous said...

Creepy and crawly...just like that story in the news about the hotel.

Hope you are out of there now!!!

Oob said...

Wow. I saw it on the news when I moved here, but to experience it through you is totally different. I hope you've found your greener pastures.

Also, a friendly suggestion: You may wish to turn on the comment word verification before you really get nailed with comment spam. :)

icy_highs said...

fuck i love gettng itches.,.i just scratch n scrath till its all red n someone comes to amputate the part..n then i get like a brand new wooden limb but its cool ..they dont call me woody for nothing eh

GeminiWisdom said...

Interesting comments. You had asked me where to read my other stuff and the best I can do is point you to the book covers in my sidebar (which will in turn take you to the publisher's website). Those are my two most recent books and you can read an excerpts. Just an FYI for ya.

GeminiWisdom said...

And yes, I agree with Oob: activate the comment verification feature.

Just Some Guy said...

Loved it, loved it all...So well written!

marrow-from-harrow said...

Beautifully written. Just beautiful.

K said...

Hi everyone--thanks for the info on moderating my comments--I feel like such a yokel since I'm fairly new to this blogging thing.

How the heck did I get spammed already??

LisaBinDaCity said...

That sounds horrid! Poor you!

And you write like a dream :-)

Mimi in NY said...

I remember that. The intern at Gawker, Alexis. Weird piece for The NYer, but it helps if you're an Ivy Leaguer with the right connections I guess.

Jean said...

Why do I itch all over after reading this? Well done.

Cheetarah1980 said...

This made me itch. For real. But more than anything, it made me miss New York. With writing as good as yours, you'll definitely be in the New Yorker one day.