Insisting that there’s not a problem—that bedbugs only happen to other people—may actually contribute to the problem. The longer you avoid the issue, the more the bugs proliferate. The number of large, multi-unit apartment buildings is another factor, Eisenberg says—it’s easy for the bugs to hop from one apartment to the next. He also says travel may make well-heeled families uniquely susceptible to infestation, as families jet around the globe and carry back bloodthirsty hitchhikers.
Catherine and her family live in the East Seventies (like Margaret, Catherine doesn’t want her real name used). Her family’s problem started about two years ago. “I noticed some marks on my arm,” she says. “Then we went to the Caribbean, and when we got there, I noticed bites on my baby’s face.” When the family got back home, Catherine noticed dark dots on her baby’s bed. Her pediatrician recognized the bites right away. “Do you want the real nitty-gritty disgustingness?” she asks, referring to her daughter’s bed. “The dark dots were the bugs going to the bathroom. It was excrement. You could also see drops of blood. When you move, the bugs think you’ll discover them—so they spit out the blood and run.”
Catherine says she has personally spoken (discreetly, of course) “to at least fifteen people up here who have this problem.” Most are understanding, she says, but “one friend stopped letting her kids come over here. And she didn’t want my child over there, either.” To a certain extent, Catherine is sympathetic. Bedbugs, she knows, freak people out. After discovering her own infestation, Catherine couldn’t sleep and imagined she was being bitten all the time: “A friend of mine was laughing about it because I was scratching all the time and jittery. I looked like a drug addict.”
Catherine approached her building’s exterminator, but after finding bugs only in her and her husband’s bedroom, he insisted there was no further problem. But eventually she found a bedbug in her daughter’s room, then rechecked her baby’s crib. “I moved it, and there were a bunch,” she adds. “That’s when I called in the big guns.”
Catherine speaks of Bliss Pest Protection Services as one might speak of a therapist who saved her life. As it happens, Steve Altarescu, the man who runs Bliss, has a master’s degree in counseling. He’s needed the full complement of his skills lately. “We’ve been doing this since 1882,” he says. “In five years, we’ve gone from hearing nothing about bedbugs to getting five or ten calls a day.”
Bliss uses bug-sniffing dogs to seek out where bedbugs may be lurking, and when the dogs got near Catherine’s husband’s snow clothes, they went mad. Shortly before the family had gone to the Caribbean, they had gone on a ski trip. The bugs had apparently traveled back with them from Aspen. Catherine called both of the hotels they had stayed at, but, no surprise, the establishments’ representatives claimed they’d had no complaints. (In the world of bedbugs, everybody denies everything.) “I am not going to sue you,” she assured them. “I’m not even going to follow up. But you’d better have those rooms checked.”
Catherine and her husband don’t take luggage anywhere near the bedroom when they return from a trip anymore. “We vacuum it,” she says, “the moment we get back.”
There is life after bedbugs. Margaret’s world is now much restored. On a recent afternoon, James ran around after his bath, happily wrapped in a towel, entirely bite-free. He is beginning to forget. Early on, Margaret started the process of desensitizing James to the fear of bugs. “I had him watching animated movies like Antz and A Bug’s Life,” she says. “Anything that treats bugs in a friendly way. Maybe we’ll go to a farm and let him actually catch bugs.” No one says the nighttime rhyme that starts with “Good night, sleep tight” to him anymore.
James’s room is now pristine. Most of his toys and books were destroyed and replaced. “Everything here was sent for intensive cleaning,” Margaret says. “This is the scene of the crime.” His bed is still there—with new bedding, of course. “The old headboard,” Margaret says sharply, “was sent out to be burned.” Margaret still constantly checks pillowcases and James’s skin. She also has an exterminator in every three months to lay powder into the apartment’s cracks and crevices.
And what if none of that works? I ask her. What if she and her family faced another infestation? “If that happened again?” she asks. She takes less than two blinks to reply. “If that happened again, I would move.”