Skip to Content
Search Icon

Nunc Dimittis

Domestic Tragicomedy

On bed bugs.


Two hundred thirty-two is the number of bites my girlfriend and I counted on her body as we applied two tubes of hydrocortisone cream to her skin. The bites appeared one morning, as if by magic, after she slept in the bed of her roommate. This roommate was not allergic to—or even aware of—the perhaps dozens of bed bugs with whom she shared her bed each night. 

There’s something almost supernatural about bed bugs, and any place one is found may as well be enchanted. These are after all creatures that appear only after dark and feed off blood and demand special powders and traps for you to rid yourself of them. The air of an infested room becomes stuffy, somehow thickened by the little parasites crawling through its walls. When bed bugs are in your home, they also seem to be everywhere else—lint on a colleague’s shoulder, pencil shavings on a desk—just until a second glance.

Oftentimes the bed bugs actually are there. Only a little while after my girlfriend’s infestation, I found a surprise in my own bedroom. The encounter began inconspicuously enough: a solitary insect on my pillow, waiting for my return, the lone herald of a domestic tragicomedy. How innocent he looked! I was reminded of my childhood dog, a dachshund named Fritz. When he begged for food, Fritz had the remarkable ability to hoist up his long body and stand perpendicular to the floor on his hind legs. Fritz could hold this mournful pose for as long as it took to win sympathy and a scrap of food. That’s what I thought of as I squished the bed bug on my pillow. No sympathy now. 

I killed dozens more that night and in the days that followed. They had a nest behind a photograph on my wall of Elvis Presley and Richard Nixon shaking hands in the Oval Office. When I removed it, I found several live bugs, several dead, many unhatched eggs, and what research revealed to be “fecal spots.” The bed bugs also got in my books, which was a real bummer. My girlfriend and I sealed them—the books, the bed bugs, all of it—in several layers of plastic bags and laid them out on a Washington, D.C., lawn. Death by dehydration and the greenhouse effect. The books were then quarantined in a closet for about a year. For months after they were freed, I would occasionally find crispy little corpses between the pages.

The worst harm the bed bugs did came at night. Not in itching bites but bad dreams. Unlike my girlfriend, I was not even mildly allergic. The bugs were with me for months before the one on my pillow case triggered my discovery of the rest. Throughout this time—because of their presence, I suppose—I had unspeakable nightmares. There is a scientific explanation for this: bed bugs are known to impart psychosis on their victims. That, combined with their remarkable ability to hide from sight, forces you to think that they are something like fairies. The truth is indeed just as frightening. They are only bugs, Cimex lectularius, but they seem to be invisible, they can drive you insane, and when you find them it’s already too late. Only once I fled my house did the nightmares stop. 

In the end, our bed bug saga wasn’t all bad. Shared adversity has a way of bringing people together. In As You Like It, Duke Senior contemplates nature’s roughness after he is exiled from the dreamy comforts of court and city. He conceives of the winter wind’s “bites and blows” upon his body not only as irritants but also as truth tellers. “This is no flattery,” says the duke, “these are counselors that feelingly persuade me what I am.” Indeed, declares the duke, “sweet are the uses of adversity.” 

A few months after my girlfriend had bed bugs, we were engaged. A few months after I had them, we were married. We now have two children and haven’t seen one of these pests in years. There is a relationship among all these events, I’m sure. But it’s perhaps a bit hidden from view and even a little mystical, much like the bed bug itself.

Caleb Whitmer writes from Washington, D.C. 

To continue reading, subscribe to The Lamp.

Get unlimited access to our complete archive when you subscribe.

Already a Subscriber?