The Husband stops me in the hallway. “I’ve got ticks in my bed,” he says. Maybe he wants to abandon the guestroom and return to the bedroom formerly known as ours. That’s how I think during our divorce.
He looks up from his smartphone. “A whole mess of them.” He shifts the suitcase strap higher up the shoulder of his blue Hugo Boss jacket. He flashes his conference smile. “Big meetings in DC,” he says. “I’m getting closer to the power source.”
I avoid looking into his dark, electric eyes. “Good for you,” I say.
Days later our nine-year-old, Milo, comes into the kitchen scratching either side of his stomach. Hanks of dark hair, like his dad’s, cover his square face. He scootches between me and the pancake pan. Bubbles grow and pop in the circles of batter.
“How will Dad feed himself?” he asks.
“He could microwave”, I say.
“We should teach him how to cook.” Then Milo lifts his T-shirt to show the line of bites that cross his torso. His stomach looks like a road map of Wisconsin.
I throw back the covers of his bed, in deep CSI mode, searching for telltale signs: bloodstains the size of exclamation points and amber casings that bedbugs shrug off to get down to business.
That night Milo moves into my bed. He throws elbows and knees like a Muay Thai fighter. The ceiling fan wobbles overhead. Bugs scurry across the back of my neck and crawl between my thighs. They scatter around my brain and bump into other infestations. The divorce. Selling the house. The Husband’s worsening condition. I wake up, not a bite. Milo, however, now looks like a road map of New York City.
The doorbell rings. Boxes invade. They turn the corner into the living room. They cover floors, coffee tables, and chairs. They brick the wall under the bay windows. They join crinkling white bags, open to reveal clever wind-up toys, board games, DVD’s of obscure films, and hardcover books about geniuses. The Husband gives these away to anyone who will listen to him. He longs for followers.
“Don’t worry,” he once told me. “I don’t want to be the kind of famous where we can’t eat dinner at a restaurant.”
The Husband returns from his conference. I trap him on the stairs.
“Those ticks? Bedbugs.”
The exterminator arrives with a small black hound. She noses through the house, her tail yanks back and forth. She skitters into the family room and sniffs the large white sofa bed my friend gave us. Since cancer my friend has taken to giving away large furniture.
The Husband claims the sofa is the bedbug source, ground zero.
My friend says The Husband is Ground Zero of Crazy.
I say, maybe it’s those conference hotels.
The hound races from room to room. She lives to find bed bugs. She bounds upstairs. She barks in Milo’s bedroom and our daughter, Katy’s, room. After each bark, she turns to the exterminator for a treat. She enters the guest room. I escape to the kitchen. The exterminator ducks through the doorway to talk. He smells of dryer sheets. He nods upstairs. “Got a live one up there.” I’m not sure if he means a bug or The Husband.
The three of us gather in the kitchen. The exterminator shows us The Lifecycle of the Bedbug.
Female bedbugs lay up to fifty eggs at a time. A nymph needs a blood meal before it can molt. They grow quickly; in warm weather, the cycle shortens. They can live many months without feeding.
Oh, God, I think. They’re never moving out either.
He describes Thermal Remediation He slides an estimate to us, a knee-buckling, kid’s braces, used-car number.
The Husband smiles. “No problem.”
“What a rip-off that Thermal thing is,” The Husband says that weekend.
He brings home an industrial steamer. We can do this ourselves, he insists. He slips the mattresses into special covers. I steam the baseboards and loosen the mealy smells of rodent and ancient disinfectant.
The Husband slips away for another conference.
Milo returns to my bed.
Where is The Husband? With cell phones, it’s hard to tell. Not that it matters, except for the kernel of hope that he’s too far away to show up, expecting to be fed and coffee-ed. Which I still do.
He answers, hushed. “I’m about to meet the President.”
“We have to do the thermal thing.”
“I’m not paying.”
“I can’t live like this anymore,” I say, my voice breaking.
I take pictures of Milo’s stomach, arms, and legs, covered in welts. I email them to The Husband’s lawyer.
The Husband enters the family room and drops his suitcase. He tilts his head. His eyes well up. “I was just thinking how hard it was.”
The kids and I are watching “Wall-ee” for the eighth time. We leave the sound up.
“At the conference, people talked about poverty. Growing up, I was poor too. I never realized before. Everyone can make it.”
Katy steps over the boxes. “It’s OK, Dad.” The Husband pulls her into his arms. Katy hugs him tightly. This moment saddens me. I want the children to love their father, but not too much.
The kids leave for school in clothes still hot from the dryer, scrubbed for public. An 18-wheeler lumbers to a stop, dwarfing our small Victorian. The back door thunders open. Two men hoist heaters the size of refrigerators onto dollies, then bang them up the steps into our house. One of the men guards the doors during the Thermal Remediation Process.
It took me years to recognize the decay; the Husband as he was and the man he is now. Looking back, it seems so obvious. But it evolved slowly. Charisma flirting with mania. Self-doubt dipping into depression. Love turning to tolerance turning to distress.
The guard allows me into the toaster oven that is our house. Heat rises from the floorboards. The accused sofa bed has been unfolded, a metal trap with cushions scattered. Pictures lean against the walls. I open windows to cool the family room. Above the fireplace sits our photo: Milo, a round infant, Katy, her face solemn, the Husband leaning in. We looked like every happy family after the serial killer has struck.
Upstairs, in the linen closet, I thrust my hand between the stack of mismatched towels. I imagine the bedbugs curled from heat, surrounded by their eggs and nymphs. Did they feel the temperature rise, or did they not notice until it was too late to escape?
One picture hangs on the wall between our bedrooms, from the year The Husband coached his company softball team to a championship. He was also a star player.
The photographer has caught him mid-flight, rounding first base, so fast his body parallels the ground. Does he hear me, standing along the sidelines, face pressed through the chain link fence, calling him home?
His feet barely graze the earth before he bullets around second, his face alight with the joy of his unnatural speed.