I had bedbugs in Oxford from Belgrade. My life was ruined, at least for the morning.
I had to contain and destroy the bedbugs from 1) my B&B in Oxford, 2) my carryon luggage in Oxford, and 3) my larger suitcase in an archaeology department in Belgrade. I was due at the radiocarbon lab in two hours.
I summoned my fight-or-flight, baby-trapped-under-the-car reserves of clearheaded decisiveness.
First, a desperate, but direct email to my best friend in Serbia, Natalija (“Na-tal-ee-ah”).
Natalija and I were roommates on an excavation a few years ago and instantly kindred as smart-ass fun girls, who roll our eyes and wonder why we don’t have boyfriends. She just played the part a lot cooler than me because she has dark bangs-over-her-eyes and a perpetual cigarette.
I would return to our room in a village bunkhouse and find her recumbent, smoking in a lace nightie, coolly leafing through a textbook about Neolithic stone tools. It was as if she was posing for a Greco-salacious portrait, rather than killing 45 minutes before dinner in a village bunkhouse.
Natalija would glance up, register my presence, and ask, “Vhat are ve going to do?”
Natalija always asked me this at times when the answer was obviously nothing.
“Natalija, we’re going to do nothing in the 45 minutes before dinner in a village bunkhouse.”
She cast me serious, penetrating eye contact. “I hate it.”
Natalija hates doing nothing. She’s a doer who gets things done—after a cigarette and a coffee and another cigarette, of course.
When we would be out, being SO FUN until 4 am before 7 am excavations I would plead, “But when will we sleep?”
“Ve vill sleep vhen ve are old.”
Natalija shows up in Turkey with no money. She loiters in a snow back in Manitoba when it’s 20 below because it’s no-smoking inside. She does not acquiesce when the hostess seats us at a reject table and claims the rest are reserved. Especially if that hostess calls her “hun.”
Momentum keeps Natalija triumphant and impervious. It’s like she’s on a bike. If she slowed she would fall. She would realize that she has no clean clothes, no place to live next month, a missing passport, and 3 exams to take (but not one chipped nail).
This description might remind you of Gilbert, and it should—but instead of the pfft [scarf!] mentality of Gilbert, it’s a pfft [smoke!] mentality for Natalija. This is a distinction in form—she puffs cigarette smoke at the situation, rather than flicking a scarf—but this is also a distinction in meaning. Pfft [scarf!] is a message of belligerent indifference, while pfft [smoke!] is a message of cool belligerence. Gilbert scoffs and walks away, while Natalija points her finger and sets things straight.
They also both study stone tools.
Should they meet (and most stone tool people do), they will be lovers or nemeses, but probably both. I think Natalija would be great for Gilbert. She would slap and sass him into an upright man.
Natalija is the coolest.
If anyone could 1) sympathize with and 2) rectify my situation, it was Natalija.
So I emailed her the horrible request—that she retrieve my suitcase and wash all of my belongings. Perhaps that does not sound abhorrently arduous, but in Serbia it is. Natalija lived multiple bus-lines away from the university building, would have to convince the security guard to give her my things, wash them at her cousin’s apartment, and strew them to dry all over the postage-stamp size room she shared with 3 other students. I suspected this would be further complicated because she probably left her ID in her exboyfriend’s wallet and had 24 hours to write a final paper. It would be an ordeal.
But I had to ask. And she would have to say yes. And it would get done because Natalija is a doer who got things done.
Next to address the infestation in the B&B. I am not proud of my stratagem here, but was without an alternative.
I strode to the reception desk and impatiently smacked the bell. The sleepy owner emerged, looking prepared to apologize. His preemptive submission deflated my air of aggression. We both hesitated to speak.
I forced out, “Ah, um, I think my room has bedbugs.”
His eyes widened and he began compulsively matting his hair back. “No, no. This can’t be. Did you see them? Why do you think this?”
I showed him my bites and claimed they happened over night.
He paced behind the registration desk muttering—“no, no, not again.” He picked up the phone, put it down without dialing, and resumed pacing and muttering—“no, no, not again.”
I needed to feign and maintain outrage, but my conscious impeded. It was a classic devil on the shoulder, angel on the shoulder situation.
I negotiated, “Look I didn’t see any bedbugs, but I woke up with these bites and I didn’t have them before. I just want to change rooms to be safe.”
“Fine. A new room, fine.”
He was grateful and I was guilt ridden. We both wanted to leave each other’s presence before the ostensibly fragile settlement deteriorated. He handed me a new key and we fled the reception desk in opposite directions.
I had to leave for the radiocarbon lab. I needed to contain the bedbugs until my return, when I would have time to find a laundry mat and properly exterminate them in a vortex of scalding, soapy death. For the meantime, I filled the bathtub as hot as possible, dumped my clothes, added my bags, and stirred my life-at-the-moment with the stick-end of the toilet plunger.
Okay. Situation okay.
Except now I had no bag for the day. With disparage, I filled a plastic Tesco bag with my notebook, bone samples, and hodgepodge of life essentials. Off to the prestigious Oxford radiocarbon lab I went, looking like a mosquito-bite (NOT zit!) ridden hobo.