It’s a testament to the difficulty of raising children that I find prepping the house for bed bug treatment to be almost relaxing. I put on a John Denver album and begin pulling down the curtains, packing up the story books, emptying drawers, throwing everything cloth into the dryer (not all at once, of course, but again and again and again). When Grandma took the kids away earlier today, instead of using the disposable diaper I offered her, she went to her car to retrieve one. “I don’t want to take any chances,” she said. Bed bugs, you know, they could be anywhere.
The strange thing is that we haven’t seen any since last Friday night when Robbie (not his real name), our guest, showed us the corner of his bed, crawling with the reddish bugs: big ones, teenage ones, baby ones. This whole week, not a single sighting, though we’ve moved couches and beds and dumped out drawers of stuff. Not-a-one little bed bug hiding in our stuff. I’ve come across other bugs, though. When moving a basket of books this morning, a cockroach dropped out of the bottom. I was just relieved to see it wasn’t a bed bug. I’ve seen spiders in all the corners, dense cobwebs a testament to the scant attention we pay to nooks and crannies of our rooms. There is a moth on the bathroom light that’s been there for days. I don’t mind, but maybe I should be kind enough to put it outside? Or else let it die when the exterminator blows his chemicals through the house?
When I worked at the day shelter, I’d frequently hear landlords blast their tenants for bringing in bed bugs. I’d always defend the tenant. “It’s not his fault!” I’d say, “Bed bugs follow the food. You treat one apartment and they go next door.”
But the night that Robbie found the bed bugs, I blamed him. There they were. Right in his bed, crawling on his shirt, in our house! And who was going to have to deal with it? Me and David. It didn’t matter that Robbie was the one being bit. In fact, if he was being bit, why hadn’t he noticed them sooner? He kept saying, in a cheery voice, trying to deflect my anger, “Good thing I saw ‘em!”
I grimaced and he asked, “You aren’t mad at me, are ya?”
“Yes,” I said, “I’m mad that the room is full of trash. The least you could do when you’re given a free place to stay is keep it clean.”
He didn’t say anything after that. We worked side by side, me instructing him what to do: bag up all the clothes, take them outside, put your medicine on the dresser, mattresses outside, trash to trash can, vacuum everywhere, especially the baseboards. I’d had enough of Robbie. Really enough.
It was bad timing to be mad at Robbie. Just a few hours prior to finding the bed bugs, Robbie and I had stood on our front step talking about his depression.
“Yeah,” he’d said, drawing the word out slowly as he always did when opening a new line of conversation, “I told my counselor I’d been feeling really down lately. She said, ‘Now Robbie, don’t you do anything’ and I said, ‘I’m not going to do anything.’ She said, ‘Can you talk to the people you live with?’ and I said, ‘Well duh!’”
I know that it doesn’t help a man with severe depression to have me mad at him. He probably didn’t clean his room because he was depressed. Still, no matter, whoever lives in our house next will wash and dry all their belongings before they move in. Their room will be subject to weekly inspections, expectations of vacuuming and bathroom cleaning will be enforced. The room will be bed bug and clutter free.
This thing of hospitality – of sharing our home with the poor — is tricky and often unappetizing. I don’t want to live with Robbie Mack any longer. I don’t want to share breakfast with him every morning and have to talk to him instead of listening to my children. I don’t want to see him pull out his teeth at the table or cook for him and do the dishes all on my own. How do you get past all that? Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing. Is that what Dostoyevsky said? Ack. It is. In this moment, it is hard to choose to live with Robbie Mack.
Laura Lasuertmer for The Poplar Grove Muse