There is nothing more terrifying than finding a well-fed bedbug in your bed at 1 a.m. It’s even more of a rude awakening if the source of this bedbug can be traced back to a one-week stand you met through an online dating site.
It all began last spring when I turned my attention to a new phenomenon for me: online dating. I went through the four phases of Internet romance. First, the euphoria of “shopping for dates.” Next, the fear of taking a virtual exchange offline and actually meeting the human being. Third came the actual dating. It didn’t take long for me to enter the fourth phase, online dating fatigue.
Some dates were pleasant but lacked a certain spark. Others were disappointments that led to a distrust that anybody’s profile contains more than a shadow of the truth.
I learned how a first date feels like a combination of a job interview and audition, full of pitfalls and flubbed lines. I had my share. For instance, the bocce date. After a buildup of feisty emails, I bet my date five pounds in British currency against her 100 Mexican pesos that I would beat her at Bocce. When she arrived at the bocce court at Union Hall, she slammed a hundred pesos on the table and said, “You’re on!” I looked up at her blankly. I had completely forgotten about the bet and showed up without the money.
Another instance I call the vaudeville date. “I’ve never met a schwag bag I didn’t like!” she announced, having just come from a promotional soiree. She was of the standup school, whereas my comedy was of the ironic strain favored by English majors. I spent an hour practically speechless as she delivered one-liners. Beneath her humor I sensed an uptight, judgmental control freak. After an hour of awkward conversation, I rushed out of the bar at the Union Square W feeling like I’d just competed against Sarah Silverman in a joke contest.
One particularly ambitious week in April, I had four dates! Just thinking about it now is exhausting. There’s a lot to be said for the manic energy of a Match.com customer determined to get her money’s worth. I had officially entered phase four: online fatigue. I pushed back against the doubts that Match was anything more than a “Dungeons and Dragons” for serial daters—its participants fueled by fantasy and a bottomless affinity for re-invention. I decided to make one last attempt to connect and start a relationship before my subscription expired.
What do I really want? I asked myself as I walked home after a booze-filled evening with a friend. And why were most of my dates so lame? I needed to screen them more stringently. Liking the photo and words wasn’t enough. Because after the initial one-dimensional attraction, where I would eliminate profiles based on their lack of creativity, spelling errors, or too much cuteness, I was choosing the wrong type. I kept meeting alphas. In my past associations with aggressive extraverts, I always got burned. Something about the introvert-extravert coupling had a definite half-life that eventually imploded on me. I needed a sensitive, somewhat introverted-but-confident, artistic type. Oh, and she had to be hot, good at dancing, and like alternative music.
When I got home, I logged on to Match. My search came back with 35 pages of possible dates. Many of the profiles were new to me. After about an hour, I came up with three possibilities. The next day, sober and rested, I read each profile again and sent each person a unique, witty, flirtatious and self-descriptive message. “How cool that you’re studying piano. My calling is typing. I clock 90 wpm when I’m warmed up. And with the right rhythm, you’d be surprised how musical ‘The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy brown dog’ can be.’” I’d found that short was best for introductory emails. And I had to mention I was a writer up front, because it got me dates.
One woman, whom I will call Liz, wrote back immediately. “What a fantastic email! Let’s meet for coffee.” She gave me her number and asked me to call.
Liz’s profile included a photo of her standing in the sun, staring at the camera with a sultry half-smile. “Friendship is not a consolation prize,” she wrote, which I took to mean she wasn’t looking for new friends. She was a Mediterranean Beauty, with long dark hair and brown eyes. Her profile included this amusing quip:” If your profile says “no games,” to me it’s a red flag for “likes drama.” Her profile spoke equally to her likes and dislikes, which I interpreted as a sign of maturity. Also, she was hot.
After a few email exchanges to hammer out the details, I met Liz on a Sunday afternoon outside a coffee shop in the West Village. She was a few minutes late, and appeared anxious and apologetic. Her nose was pierced and she was a tad shorter than I expected. But she matched her photo. Exotic, refined. She had a birthmark on her upper lip that mirrored my own exactly. She shook my hand rapidly. “Let’s go in,” she said.
The good thing about my first two months of online dating was that I had learned how to smooth out some of the awkwardness of the first date. I had talking points as well as polished, neutral answers to questions about my history. My new job was a fertile subject, as were recent travels to the west coast.
Liz seemed jittery. The huge double cappuccino she sipped wasn’t helping her nerves. In a posture of self-defense, she peppered me with questions. We talked politics. She was a former schoolteacher, a big leftie, and wanted to make sure that she wasn’t dealing with the enemy. During one lull she grabbed her coffee mug, which seemed huge in her tiny hands. “We have the same mole, but on opposite sides,” she said, smiling. I smiled back and flushed. Our first flirt. “At least they’re not on the same side—” I joked. “Then I couldn’t date you!” She took a sip of coffee and didn’t drop her gaze. Again, I felt a slight buzz of sexual energy.
When the conversation shifted to exes, she blurted, “Just how important is sex to you?” This seemed like an odd question, and I sensed that it was a sore subject with her. I just couldn’t figure out if she was the frustrator or the frustratee in a past relationship. “Oh, very important,” I said. She retorted, “It’s important to me too, but it can’t be everything. I like to have conversations every once in a while.”
Another reason Liz might have asked this question is that she was traveling a lot. She was living in three cities in pursuit of a masters. Her home base was New York, but she was going to classes in Florida while doing research in New Orleans. In fact, she was leaving town in exactly one week. Not living in the same city was on my red flag checklist. But the fact that she didn’t have her own apartment wasn’t an issue for me at this point. I decided not to overthink this one. It seemed to me that a lasting relationship this was not. But in the moment, it was okay.
I had already made the snap judgment that I wanted to see Liz again. She wasn’t alpha. While she seemed combative during our political discussion, I sensed that she was open to debate and welcomed alternate points of view, at least academically. Plus there was definitely chemistry between us. I sensed that I might be able to take on some of her pent-up energy.
Mid-way through our conversation, Liz leaned forward and said, “Where are you with this? Do you, I mean, would you like to get together again?” I said yes, and then we made a plan to get together later in the week, before she left town.
Things with Liz accelerated. We exchanged emails that evening, re-confirming our date. During work on Monday, I got a text from her asking if she could call me that night. The next day, as I was leaving work, another text. She asked if I wanted to meet. Randomly, we ended up having drinks at the Union Square W, site of my doomed vaudeville date. After more flirting, we parted ways and planned our next date.
On Friday I met her in the Village to see a film. Afterwards we wandered to a nearby restaurant. After a meandering meal that was supercharged with sexual tension, she opened discussion about coming home with me.
“I really want to spend the night with you,” she said. “I packed some things. I hope you don’t mind me saying this.”
I had been hoping that she would come back to Brooklyn with me. And I was flattered that she had actually put some thought into it. She was staying at her sister’s house in Queens, so me staying with her was out of the question.
Once Liz got to my apartment, her boldness disappeared. I poured her some wine, and she sat in the corner of my couch with her feet curled beneath her. She had made herself so small there, she looked like she didn’t have legs. I realized, in a bit of a panic, that nothing was happening tonight if I didn’t make the first move, so I kissed her. She kissed me back, but not in the hot-blooded Mediterranean way I had imagined. I had thought of her as a coiled, hot-blooded Cleopatra. In reality, she was a pale and passive Desdemona.
Still, we had come this far. She had asked to spend the night! The buildup generated its own momentum. We moved to the bedroom. The sex was brief and disconnected. When it was over, she moved to one side of the bed and was out cold. She didn’t move for the rest of the night. We didn’t touch. I marveled how someone could be so sexy and yet so bad at sex. As I lay awake, listening to Liz’s shallow breathing, it felt wrong to be next to her. I realized I had made a mistake. Then I fell asleep.
Liz rushed out the next morning, claiming she had an appointment at the dentist. I felt relieved that she refused my offer of coffee. All day I puzzled over what had happened. Had she suddenly decided that she wasn’t into me? What turned her off? Or did Liz have issues with intimacy, which made the act surreal for her? I went back to her profile. Re-read her comments about “no games” and friendship not being a consolation prize. She also put stock in her own honesty. Was she just another nut job from the online dating realm?
As I tried to sort out what had happened, Liz called. “I want to talk to you,” she said. “And you know that I’m leaving tomorrow morning. Would you like come out to Jackson Heights for dinner? I still haven’t packed, but I have a little bit of time.”
I decided to see her. I wasn’t envisioning a tearful good-bye. And I didn’t think we’d spend the night together. I went out of a different kind of need: curiosity. I was on the case of Liz’s mysterious, disappearing libido. This was partly due to the English major in me. If I didn’t figure out how I had misread her, I might make the same mistake again.
After a buffet dinner at one of the Indian restaurants on Roosevelt Avenue, Liz and I walked to her sister’s house.
“A warning,” she said, as we approached the front door. Her sister and family were away for the weekend. “My sister’s house is a mess. It used to bother me,” she waved her hand as if to swat away the thought. “It’s her mess. I’ve let it go. Anyway, if you want to know who I am,” she shrugged, as if to deflect all judgment. “This is part of my reality. And if it bothers you, it bothers you.”
I detected a slight “fuck you” in her preamble. But I didn’t fully understand the defensive posture of her speech until she opened the door of her sister’s apartment. The house was a complete clutterfuck. Magazines, books and boxes were stacked on every inch of surface. There were piles of laundry on the couch. Cereal boxes, soap, and toilet paper packs littered the kitchen table. Dishes towered on one counter, newspapers on another. Piles of mail were stacked by the front door. I got dizzy just looking around. The house smelled like baked-on grease and stale coffee. It was the smell of accumulation, half-finished chores and schemes left to their own devices.
“Want me to hang up your coat?” Liz asked.
“No thanks,” I said, setting it on the couch, next to the pile of laundry. I was afraid we wouldn’t be able to find it again. If the living room looked this bad, I shuddered to imagine the closets.
Besides the Collyer brothers, who died in a sea of crap they refused to throw away, clutter always made me think of bugs. Perhaps it was my recent experience subletting a friend’s cluttered apartment, which harbored a lot of bugs. As soon as I set down my coat and bag I thought, “I hope I don’t bring any bugs home.”
This feeling redoubled when I sat down on Liz’s nephew’s bed. This room was equally messy, strewn with toys, clothes and kids’ books.
Liz dragged a suitcase out of the closet, and began packing haphazardly. She threw clothes on top of books and added some toiletries, without arranging anything. Obviously, Liz had reconciled herself to the clutter—and didn’t think twice about it. So what did she think when she came to my tidy, clutter-free apartment? I had been spending the past couple of years getting rid of things, and my apartment was spare by design. It must have seemed like a 5-star hotel compared to this place. For me, there’s a certain comfort that comes from order, from knowing that things have a place—so that when they’re out of place, I notice. And I can find, say, a sock, when I need it. But for some, a messy room doesn’t feel disorderly.
Liz had said she’d made peace with her sister’s mess. Had she really? I remembered how soundly she had slept the night before, how quickly she’d moved away from me. Spending the night with me was a getaway for her, a clutter-free moment in her chaotic life. It struck me that her motive to come over wasn’t necessarily to hook up, but to get a good night’s sleep!
A movement on the floor caught my eye. A baby cockroach was crawling into the nephew’s closet. I squirmed on the bed. Bug alert! Time to excuse myself as quickly as possible. The thought of bedbugs crossed my radar. “Shit,” I thought. “That’s all I need!” I had read that if a place is infested, the bedbugs don’t wait for darkness. They crawl out in broad daylight looking for a meal, and can get in your clothes.
“I wanted to talk about last night,” Liz said.
“Yes, you mentioned that,” I said. “About last night. It was your idea to come over, but you seemed to lose interest once you got there.”
“I think I just want to be friends,” she said, rooting around in the suitcase. She looked at me and pulled out a book, Naomi Klein’s “The Shock Doctrine.” She’d talked about it on our first date. She opened the spine, then closed it quickly and set it on the bed.
“Okay,” I said. “I understand. But what happened? I’m fine with it, but I don’t quite get it. It seemed like you left the room the minute that we got physical.”
“Well,” she said, putting her hands on her hips. “If that was your experience. It wasn’t my experience.”
“I’m just trying to understand.” I said, my eyes darting to the closet floor where I’d last seen the baby cockroach. “Was I mis-interpreting the situation, or did you ask to spend the night?”
“Yes, I did. I was attracted to you. It’s been a while since that’s happened. And I invited you here to say goodbye, because I really like you, and didn’t want to blow you off. ‘Friendship isn’t a consolation prize.’ You saw that on my profile.”
“Yes, but I thought that meant you were interested in meeting lovers, not friends.”
“No,” she said. “It means I don’t take friendship lightly. Not everyone gets to be my friend. I think I’m more about having friends than lovers right now.”
Her suitcase was stuffed, but she went back to the closet and took out some shirts.
“You asked me to come over here because you want to be friends? Why couldn’t you have said that on the phone?” I said, suddenly realizing that she was wasting my time. I was angry because I had let myself be lured into a game. She had invited me over because she realized that she had behaved badly, but she still wanted me to like her, and pretend that everything was cool.
“No, I asked you here because I wanted to show you where I lived, which is part of who I am,” she said, shrugging again. She looked at me and smiled. Not a real smile, but a crinkling of the mouth, as if she were about to bite into a cracker.
“I’m sorry if I offended you,” she said. “I understand that you might not want to be my friend.”
“Do you see other people?” I asked, realizing that I should have brought this up earlier.
She sat on her suitcase. Clothes were spilling over the sides, so she stood up to readjust them.
“I was having a long-distance relationship with this guy. He started out as a friend. But really I hated him.”
“I really think I should go now,” I said. It had taken me a while to realize that she was a nut job, but when I did, I acted swiftly.
As I grabbed my coat, I realized why I had accepted her invitation to come over. I had wanted her to throw herself at me. And I was angry for that too. There were crazy lovers in my past, and I thought I had moved beyond them. But I had fallen for crazy again.
I spent the weekend telling the story of Liz to my friends, getting her out of my system. She sent me a few emails from New Orleans. She was apologetic, still insisting that we be friends. After a few exchanges, I said it would be fine if she called me the next time she was in town, knowing full well that she wouldn’t.
Doggedly, I went back on Match. I had a month left of my subscription. A few weeks later, I met the third woman who had come up in my springtime, late-night search. (I had already ruled out the second woman without meeting her.) We started dating. Looking back, it seems like a small miracle that we met. We were both on the verge of giving Match a rest. But now we had a better reason not to renew—we could both check off the box in the Match exit survey that said, “I met someone.”
In June, I started noticing bites on my arms and legs in the morning. Some of them had a telltale sign: three or four bites in a row on a patch of skin. This happens when a bedbug is disturbed while feasting. It moves on in a straight line to fresh vein.
My girlfriend mentioned that her feet itched at night in my bed. At first I blamed the bites on mosquitoes. Even though I never heard the buzz of their tiny wings in my ear. Then, allowing the possibility that the bites could be coming from bedbugs, I inspected my mattress. Nothing. Alone one night, something pinched my leg. When I threw off the sheet, I saw a spider fleeing. So I blamed the bites on spiders. A few weeks later, after something bit me, I discovered a spider chasing another bug. I killed them both and thought nothing of the other bug.
Bedbugs had been one of my biggest fears. Once, after a friend relayed her epic tale of infestation, I convinced myself that I had them. During this phantom bedbug scare, I lost a lot of sleep. I was about to throw out all of the furniture before I realized that the bugs in my bed were no-see-ums coming from the tree outside my window. The problem disappeared when summer ended, and all was well again in the tree-lined heart of Park Slope.
It wasn’t until mid-July that I saw a live bedbug. It was late. I had been reading in bed. I got up to get some water, and when I came back, a bug was in the spot where I had been. I recognized it by its appleseed body and the terror that ran up my spine. Christ! First I killed it. I was shaking as I picked the corpse off the bed with a napkin and put it in a plastic bag.
Then I spent one of the longest nights in my life. Other than learning of the death or tragedy of a loved one, finding out that you have bedbugs is some of the worst news you can get. They’re the unseen enemy, everywhere and nowhere. The mindfuck of not knowing where they are is part of the hell. That, and not sleeping. At one point, I flicked on the bathroom light and saw a big fat bug, engorged with my blood, crawling up the wall. It looked like a bloodsucker with six legs. I couldn’t get to it fast enough, and it scurried away.
I spent the rest of the night surfing bedbugger.com, reading fresh horror stories about the little vampires. And scratching. I read how they can get everywhere, even inside your television. How difficult it is to get rid of them without disposing of your entire life.
I wrote an S.O.S email to my landlord. He responded early in the morning with good news. An exterminator was on his way! Meanwhile, I had to boil or dry clean every sheet and item of clothing I owned. Or throw it away. In one horror-film moment, I found a nest of newly-hatched bugs living in a drawer. I threw the whole thing away.
Five exterminations, much vacuuming and many loads of laundry later, my apartment appears to be bug-free. It’s been seven months since I first saw a bedbug. I’m still sleeping on an air mattress, still cautious about getting a new bed just yet. And I inspect my sheets every morning. Thankfully, my girlfriend didn’t bring any of the bedbugs home, and I didn’t spread the horror to her apartment. And she didn’t freak out, or take the bugs as some sort of sign that our relationship was doomed. Her understanding and support were a great comfort during the ordeal.
Bedbugs were once my biggest fear. They still are. But they’re gone and I’m still here. I won’t deny that thoughts of them lying dormant in my baseboards occasionally keep me up at night. Whether or not the bugs came from Liz, I will never truly know. I wish I had been more cautious. At the same time, if meeting her led me to conquer my biggest fear, and led me to a real match, can I complain?
Jill Bauerle is a journalist and writer who lives in Brooklyn. Her novel-in-progress is titled, “Liechtensteining.”