I am addicted to natural light. I chalk this up to my years in Fairbanks, Alaska, which is 100 miles from the Arctic Circle and is pitch-black by mid-afternoon in winter, with the sun rising at around ten the next day. Put me in a dark room and after a week, I will tell you everything, including any lies you may want to hear, so I can feel light on my skin once more.
When I looked on the internet for a room in Penang that I could call home while I searched for a more lasting one, a window was my biggest requisite, followed closely by an en suite bathroom. My friend Judy had found both at a place called the Broadway Budget Hotel, in the Indian section of the city, and since that was an area that I loved, I booked a room there for a week.
My third-floor room turned out to be clean and had a huge bank of windows overlooking the street. During my first hours in it, I had a stunning view of a Hindu funeral procession and at twilight I watched the minaret of one of Georgetown’s largest mosques change from a stabbing white to a a pearlescent softness, washed in the pale blues and pinks and yellows of sunset.
The hotel is on the street that is the division between the Chinese and Indian parts of the city. Strings of green lights were being festooned from one side to the other for Deepavali and every evening a new strand of green illuminated the darkness. Chinese storefront cafes faced Indian tea stalls across the way and a woman at the Jolly Café introduced me to the restorative bite of nutmeg juice, showing me the fruit that it is made from. After years of loving the smell and taste of nutmeg, I had to come to a Chinese café after I turned 60 to learn that the spice comes from a small, golden orb that resembles an apricot and I became even more besotted with Penang.
One night I had trouble falling asleep, feeling as though little whispers of touch were roaming over my body. Using my mobile phone as a flashlight, I focused its dim beam on my arm—something on it was moving. I turned on the light and not only was there a flourishing colony of bugs on the bed with me, there was clear evidence under the fitted sheet and below my pillow that my restless turning during the past hour had killed many others of their tribe. Small brown spots dotted the cotton bedding I’d brought with me and had used to replace the hotel’s polyester sheet and pillowcases and scratchy terrycloth blanket.
The living insects retreated when the bedroom light was on and I switched on both the fan and air conditioner, hoping they would dislike the chilled rush of air. Unfortunately they seemed not to care. Soon there were even more of them, all different sizes, some of them reddish-brown and swollen with blood which I knew couldn’t be mine, because there were no bites anywhere on my body.
There were too many to kill, although I tried. I flushed some down the toilet and trapped a few under a glass turned upside down in an ashtray. I went downstairs to the reception desk, hoping that I could change rooms but there was nobody there. The office was dark and an open doorway allowed anyone who wanted shelter to come up the staircase and into the “secure” hotel. I went back to my room and locked my door. I put on street clothes and lay on top of the king-size sheet I used as a blanket. I zipped my open bags shut and prayed the bugs hadn’t found refuge within them yet. I tried to sleep with the light on and the air conditioner at full-blast. Shortly after the first call to prayer floated from the mosques and the night faded into grey, the bugs retreated and I dozed for a couple of hours, jerking awake at intervals to be sure I was alone.
I gave the maid my bedding and every scrap of clothing that had been lying around the room to wash and iron and the management put me on another floor that they swore was free of vermin. I checked the mattress for little dots of blood, found none, and tried to relax. That night something bit me and my arms and legs were soon covered with tidy lines of swollen skin that itched unmercifully. I turned on the light, saw nothing, and was sure it was some form of gnat. I put on a long-sleeved shirt, a pair of slacks and slathered every exposed skin cell with lavender oil, but still new portions of my body continued to flare into wild itching and new welts appeared under my clothes.
The next day I googled bed bugs.
As I already knew, those were the insects in my former room and photos on the internet confirmed that. What was even more horrible was that my body was covered with their bites, which are retroactive. There are people who have no reaction to bed bug bites and there are those who react strongly to them. With 93 bites that I could see and more under my shoulder blades and on my buttocks, I quite obviously fell in the camp of strong reactors. The bites, I learned, could linger as long as a week, as did the power of the itch, which could, Google told me, be eased by antihistamines.
At this point I was honestly terrified. I had found an apartment and the thought of carrying bed bugs into it made me want to vomit. I inspected everything I owned and found no trace of insects. After the first night when my bites erupted, no new ones came to join them and there was no trace of bugs at night. Once again, I tried not to feel crazed.
When I left the hotel to move to my apartment, I handed my suitcases to a taxi driver and glanced down as he took them. There, moving across the smaller bag, was a bed bug. I reached out instinctively and crushed it with my thumbnail. The driver put the bags in the trunk of his taxi and I sat in sheer misery as we drove to my new home.
My suitcases never left the hallway of my building. I put everything within them in the small entryway before I unlocked the door to my apartment. Everything that could be laundered I put in a drawstring bag and tied it tightly. All of my other possessions went into a bathroom where the white tile would clearly reveal any bugs that might crawl over it. I closed the door, took my clothing to a laundry right outside the apartment building that had a dryer big enough for me to sleep in. Then I threw away every bag I owned, including the ones that had held my netbook and camera—and my wonderful green handbag that I had bought in Bangkok and loved.
There are wooden dining chairs in my apartment and metal ones on the balcony. This is where I sat for the first week of my occupancy. The two cushy leather sofas were off limits to me; I inspected them every evening, praying that the night I met my landlord and sat on one of them hadn’t led to an infestation. I peered at the tiles of my bathroom religiously and have never in my life before been quite so happy to see little red ants. I leaped upon every little speck of dirt and moving particle of lint in all six rooms of my apartment—in fact I still do—and it was a week before I slept on one of the beds.
Everything that I painfully carried in heavy suitcases on the train to Penang is still imprisoned in clear, snap-topped, plastic boxes. I have opened one of them once, a week ago, out on the balcony with the sliding door firmly shut. I removed camera cords, looked them over with the piercing gaze of an electronic microscope, used them, and then snapped them back into smaller plastic containers.
I’ve been in my new home for three weeks with no appearance of bed bugs. At night I can be awakened by the ceiling fan in my bedroom when it blows a thread from the comforter against my skin or when a hair falls from my head onto my neck. As I write this, my skin literally crawls and I check for small moving objects.
Every day I yearn for my dictionary and the wonderful guide to Penang’s architecture and the Teach Yourself Malay study guide I bought soon after my arrival at the Broadway Budget Bedbug Bonanza. The things I carried from Bangkok are without any value and are all treasures—a small carved box my children gave me for Mother’s Day a lifetime ago, a chess set from my youngest son, a small wooden figure from Africa that my oldest son bought when he worked at Pier One, photographs…all snapped away in quarantine.
For almost a month I’ve stared, with a mixture of longing and dread, at boxes that hold traces of a history that I cherish. The myth of Pandora is the only thing that keeps me from opening them, along with the memory of things crawling through the darkness, feasting on my skin.