How well did you love?
How fully did you live?
How deeply did you let go?”
– Gautama Buddha
– Sarah Galli
I thought I couldn’t imagine a worse kind of anguish than being dumped on 1st Avenue by a guy I thought I would one day marry. Then I got bed bugs.
I’d gone to sleep several weeks ago in my quiet Manhattan rental and awoken to a few red welts on my arms and thigh. Having recently procured new sheets, I told my roommate I thought I was having an allergic reaction to bedding. And yet the reality was much worse than chemically induced hives. Later that week, my roommate awoke to a living nightmare — a bed bug at work on her skin.
This set about frantic, hysterical calls to our friends and families. Going door to door to alert our never-before-addressed neighbors (the joy of NYC living, wherein all daily pleasantries that were seemingly mandatory in my Northeast childhood neighborhood were verboten in this Upper East Side social landscape), having to endure rounds of exterminations by our landlord’s “specialist” before he allowed a professional company to step in. The painful, red welts that seemed to grow every day, my body covered with reminders of how terrifying each night’s sleep had become. Finding out the source of our infestation was an elderly woman with dementia and 45-year old furniture a floor below ours, an apartment riddled with hundreds of bugs now moving to other units unabated.
And all of this: the sleepless nights, the hysteria, the feeling of helplessness, the immediate wish for life as it was promised mere weeks ago, all of it was familiar. I’d been bitten before.
We met on OkCupid, Mike sending me an admiring note about my profile’s professed love for (almost) all things Sorkin.
A flurry of messages followed, a planned meet-up for a round of drinks lasting hours instead. He felt safe. He felt like home.
And he was, for several months. He told me he loved me after a week and a half, that I was his “one” within days of our first date. We jumped into the third act of a romantic comedy with no holds barred. Nora Ephron would have scoffed at our instant pudding kind of coupledom as a formulaic first act plot, too ridiculous and sudden to be our grand finale to singledom.
Yet, there we were, starring in a movie we’d written ourselves. He was waiting for me at our second date with what I deemed “Christmas Eyes.” So filled with joy and excitement. I felt like a present he’d been waiting to unwrap. And off we went.
Six months later we ran into each other on 1st Avenue, and in the span of one block and one minute, Mike dumped me. That was it.
I’d left my apartment to grab a quick brunch, ran into my boyfriend, and on the corner of 88th Street and 1st Avenue was told, “I don’t think it’s going to work out; I don’t think we’re going to get married.”
It was sudden, shocking, and completely overwhelming. I looked at him, furious, blinded by my own sinking desperation that it was over. That whom I thought was “the guy” was instead breaking up with me in the span of a starting stroll.
I spent an hour or so sobbing to friends, calling my family, trying to explain the sudden crash of our relationship to anyone that would listen. It was done. It died.
There had been signs along the way, markers that this was not to be. Mike had a series of relationship anxiety attacks I had worked to overcome throughout our time together, seemingly timed on major holidays.
The Christmas/New Year’s panic, when he asked that I not contact him first during the day so that when he calls it would feel “like a surprise.”
Valentine’s Day, when Mike gave me a Hallmark card whose cover professed love “to my good friend,” referencing a moment weeks earlier when he hypothesized that if we were to break up, I would be a great buddy to have. He said this, naturally, while he was inside me.
My birthday dinner in March, when Mike was introduced to my inner circle of friends; he stayed silent and withdrawn throughout the night – including when the check was presented to our table.
The reality was, I’d ignored all the warnings. I had symptoms of a wildly unwieldy relationship, but I disregarded them. I was grateful to Mike for loving me with a passion I was sure I didn’t deserve, so when he had moments of hesitation or neurosis, I bent over backwards to clothe his anxiety in comfort.
For Valentine’s Day, I had breadsticks and cheese sauce, a midwestern delicacy, overnighted from his favorite Indiana restaurant. I paid $100 in expedited shipping for dry ice, dough, and orange yellow, because I didn’t think it was enough if I showed up at his apartment with empty arms and a full heart.
The nightmare of a bed bug infestation made me hyper aware of my intimacy peccadillos. In the time we were dating, Mike never once set foot in my apartment – I’d forbidden him entry. We both knew I was insane for outlawing him from my space, but I instinctively felt he wouldn’t be able to love me in any other capacity than one directly outside the inner sanctum of my private life.
I didn’t want him to see me without my red lips lacquered and dress out of place.
I was a slob in my apartment, and a doll in his.
I kept the dream I thought he’d had about his ideal girlfriend alive, and in doing so completely disregarded anything I’d felt was outside the parameter of perfection.
I was producing a benefit on Broadway while we dated, and I’d passively comment on the stresses of executive producing a major charity gala, supplicating my worries as inferior to his TV production job.
All these signs that something was off, and I ignored them. A year later, giant welts covered my arms, and I brushed them off too. The picture of my life did not include anything but what I allowed myself to see.
And when bitten by the truth in my apartment, I freaked.
I tried to take control. Organizing a unified response with my neighbors, pursuing city and state bed bug commission counsel. Wearing three layers of clothing to bed on the off chance bugs were repulsed by leggings and Anthropologie’s latest lounge collection.
And yet, those beasts stayed. They reminded me each morning, as the bites grew and spread, what little control I had.
After we broke up, I banned all access to Mike’s social media online, and yet a mutual friend’s news feed led to what felt like a nightmarish tableau. Mike had traveled to Italy, was posing happily with a female companion at a romantic dinner, and was “celebrating his birthday in style.”
I sat there, on the bed bug encasements covering my mattress and box spring, in my barren bedroom, having thrown out every piece of furniture but the one named after my latest trouble, and watched his perfectly pictured life on Instagram as mine was in disarray. I’d never trusted myself to let Mike see who I am, and yet he’d invaded my apartment all the same.
I called a dear friend, hysterical, choking on tears.
“I fucking have bed bugs and that asshole is in Italy with his new girlfriend.”
“It’s ovveeerr. I’m going to be the old woman downstairs. No one will ever want to love just me. I’m going to be alone foreverrrrr.”
I couldn’t even bury my face in sheets as I wept, because all the bedding I owned was currently housed in industrial trash bags for fear of eggs. An Instagram account I wasn’t signed up for seemed to draw more blood than my insect sublettors ever had.
I’d pretended to be the ideal girlfriend, and as a result our relationship was a house of cards. I’d denied the signs of an apartment imbalance, and I was now covered in itchy reminders that ignorance was certainly not bliss.
In both cases, I was scared. I was afraid of who I really was and how I would be seen, and so I hid from myself and everyone else. And when given bumps in the road, and on the skin, I blamed everything but the reality in front of me.
My landlord is now paying for advanced chemical and steam treatment, and slowly signs of normalcy are returning to my Manhattan home. My roommate and I are staying at our apartment again, and I dream of a time when I can go to sleep without waking up with a fresh wound.
And I’m attempting to date without hiding myself. I have scars, sure, most people do. But I have to learn to let go of the mask I wear in relationships. I pretended not to have wounds, and it was a lie. I need to grow up, move on, and accept who I am as me.
And everyone else can bite me.