Let me be clear. I am not afraid of bugs. My freshman bug collection earned an A and I’ve caught tarantulas for fun. My issue with creepy animals begins when they leave their sphere and enter mine.
Before moving into my first apartment, I’d only spoken with my roommate over the internet. She told me her English was limited, so when she warned me of the “little animals” all around the floor, I had no idea what to expect. When I got there in early August, I opened the door to find swarms of crickets. The bodies of dead ones my roommate had killed and swept to the corner stunk.
Within a day, I noticed a few open areas that could use some weather proofing and insulation to keep the unwelcome guests outside. The problem was solved.
If I’d been able to solve the bug issues in my second apartment so easily, I might not be so skittish about finding other “little animals” in my living spaces now. My spouse and I hadn’t been there long before the Germans invaded — the German cockroaches, that is. It didn’t matter how much we bombed, which products we used, how many exterminators came, or how clean we were, they infested everything. We even moved across the hall, thinking the conditions would improve.
My skin still crawls when I think of how long we put up with that substandard living situation. After a while, I found myself crushing roaches that crawled up from between the keys in my computer keyboard with my bare fingers while I wrote my master’s thesis. The management spent much of its time gaslighting, convincing us that they didn’t have any problems in their apartments and that we were obviously not cleaning enough. There was nothing wrong with the building. When we told them our neighbors who shared our wall were struggling with substance abuse had more but wouldn’t allow anyone into their place, they told us they couldn’t do anything.
Workers from the health department came and our neighbors were eventually evicted. I passed while the inspector was there with her mouth agape, staring at the dark corners of the walls throbbing with roaches. That’s what it took for someone to believe us.
I’ve never been happier to move. In the next place, I found one roach, and it was less than 24 hours after we moved. It was a stowaway in the frame of wall art. I killed it, and that was the last thing I found for almost three years.
A few years later, while I comforted my sick infant, I noticed something so small traveling across the bed. I’d seen pictures of bed bugs in the news and knew right away. I caught it, put it in a mason jar, and put it outside until I could take it to the management to prove that we needed pest control services. We were lucky that the property managers took the problem seriously, and that we never found evidence of more. The exterminator told us we might have taken it home with us from the doctor’s office and were lucky to catch it early.
That didn’t change how I worried, or how my mind instantly flashed back to the guilt I felt of being branded “unclean” at the previous place even when I knew it was untrue. I had flashbacks of the morning after my senior prom, when my dad woke me up to tell me I had head lice. My sister had found it while she was doing my hair and they’d let me go anyway, because it was the first year I was excited about going to a school dance. I had a boyfriend, a pretty dress, and a mess of curly red hair full of bloodsucking parasites. I didn’t get over that for months. I checked myself every chance I got. Several other members of the family had it, too, and no one knows exactly how it all started. But I felt like it was my fault, like I was being punished by God with a plague.
When I moved to an apartment in New York, I was scared I’d be putting myself back in the danger zone. For months, things went well. Then came the “water bugs.” People call them that to make themselves feel better, but when I look at comparisons on pest control websites, they’re just another species of cockroach. I could be wrong, but I don’t want them in my apartment, or landing on my arm while I’m sleeping. My landlord thinks I’m neurotic because everyone gets them for a season — I’ve asked other neighbors whose houses I’ve seen are clean and it’s true — they only come when it’s rainy, they don’t breed inside, and they go away when it’s cold outside. I insisted we seal all the areas underneath the radiators leading outside anyway.
Bugs are part of life, but I don’t have to like them or put up with them in my home. I’m a pretty peaceful person, but when I find any “little animals” in my home, they don’t stand a chance.
Jennifer Ditlevson Haglund is a former news reporter for the Maryville Daily Forum, now living and writing in New York City.