Photograph by Sophie Kemp.
I was trying on brassieres at Azaleas, the one next to the Ukrainian National Home on Second Avenue. All the brassieres looked terrible on me. This is because I have very small breasts (which is okay, because I have absolutely fabulous areolas). I picked out one that was a very pale blush pink, and paid seventy dollars for it. Then my phone rang. It was my roommate. There were bumps all over her body. “They are very itchy,” she said, and asked me if I had them, too. I did not. When I got back to our apartment in South Brooklyn, I stripped my sheets off my bed. There was a large brown bug sunbathing on my mattress. I poked it with a pen. It made a movement that seemed to say: Ouch. I scanned the bed: there was a constellation of ink-colored droplets.
The bedbug summer was in 2019. I had just turned twenty-three. I was working at Vogue as an assistant. I was making very little money. I thought I was punk because I would often show up to work with a gin hangover, plug in a pair of headphones, and play YouTube videos where various artists performed industrial music. I thought I was punk because all of my clothes were from the garbage or had been gifted to me by people who also worked at Vogue (okay, I did buy stuff, like the bra). I thought I was punk because I was dating a former child jazz prodigy who lived in a DIY venue in Gowanus with no shower, no kitchen, but massive windows, hardwood floors. A posh nightclub had opened up next door and I sometimes went there to pee because I liked the soap. It all made me feel very cool even though in reality it was pathetic. My boyfriend slept on a twin-sized cot inside of what was functionally an electrical closet. He was the first person I called about the bedbugs. That evening he took me to the nightclub and bought me a cocktail. He had a freckle inside his eyelid and it looked like a wet pebble. I was totally in love with him.
It was not a good situation. The next morning, there was a large man in my apartment. It was the Fourth of July. The man was wearing a hazmat suit. He was going to do what he called a radical intervention re: the bugs. It involved a breakthrough in technology. He had come from New Jersey in a Sprinter van. He met us at an ATM on Newkirk Avenue so we could pay him in cash. My roommate tried to blame the whole thing on me. And why wouldn’t she? She had a nice boyfriend in medical school who liked to cook her dinner. I told her that she was insane, to make me pay for the whole thing. This was New York City. Nefarious individuals could have come into our home during the night and sprinkled the bedbugs on our sheets. We had to at least get the landlord involved. The landlord called us gullible idiots and then said she’d split it three ways because the exterminator we picked was too expensive. The man left our house. I still was not itchy. On the internet it said not everyone was allergic to bedbugs. I liked this fact: I was some kind of biological miracle? I did not want to spend any more time in the bedbug apartment so I went to my boyfriend’s DIY venue and poured a bottle of Bailey’s into an XL Dunkin’ Donuts iced coffee cup, and then we took the subway to Far Rockaway.
After a few weeks, the bedbugs were physically gone, but I continued to see them everywhere. In my clothes. In my backpack, which I had taken to ironing at least twice a day just to be safe. I had given them to everyone at Vogue, probably. There was this thing where my boyfriend told me that a woman he used to fuck also had gotten bedbugs, not long before we started dating. I started flipping over the mattress on his cot to inspect it every time he went to the bathroom after sex. I would crawl around on the floor completely naked, aiming my iPhone flashlight at the ground, like a coal miner. I was subsisting on a lot of Cool Blue Gatorade and really cheap Thai food. Around this time I was attacked by a cat in a bodega. It became clear to me that my boyfriend was probably addicted to smoking marijuana. I had basically stopped letting people into my apartment, including myself.
I decided I was being punished, Old Testament–style. I would sit at my desk at work and think of how I had been affected by each of the biblical plagues:
(1) Water turning to blood: I had been menstruating for almost a decade at this point.
(2) Frogs: I had seen frogs in various ponds.
(3) Lice: I had been spared from this one, so far.
(4) Flies: I am from upstate New York and they are always talking about black fly season there. I had personally experienced this—a swarm of them around my head in the High Peaks Wilderness.
(5) Livestock pestilence: I used to eat semi-rancid deli meat when depressed.
(6) Boils: To this day I am a hormonal acne sufferer.
(7) Hail: Again, from upstate New York. There is a joke among locals that is like, What are the seasons in upstate New York? Winter, winter, winter, roadwork. Ha ha ha.
(8) Darkness: Constant, neverending.
(9) Locusts: This was the bedbugs.
(10) Slaying of the firstborn: A false positive from a pregnancy test purchased at a pharmacy near the Jules Joffrin station in Paris. The father would’ve been this guy Antoine, who used to pick me up from school at La Sorbonne and then have sex with me while we watched music videos by the artist Micachu and the Shapes on the television in his apartment in Belleville. He was a decade older than me. He was one of the first people that I’d ever had sex with. If we’d had a daughter she would’ve been so pretty.
By the start of the fall, I had completely lost my mind. It was comical. I started seeing a therapist and was swiftly diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder. My boyfriend had made it clear to me that even though I loved him, he did not love me. I was tired of being punk. I was tired of walking around in a bikini as a shirt. It was all such a weird season. In January 2020, after a long breakup—far overdue—I moved to a small but stunning apartment on the fourth floor of a brownstone. There were no bedbugs there. My new roommates were nice. I pushed my bed into a corner and sat on the fire escape and drank wine out of a mug. The plagues were over (or so I thought). A few months later, I realized that all my clothes were infested with moths.
Sophie Frances Kemp is a writer in Brooklyn, originally from Schenectady, New York. She has published non-fiction in GQ, Vogue, and The Nation, and fiction in The Baffler and Forever. She has a forthcoming novel called Paradise Logic.
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