When the bugs came, I threw everything away.
All of my stuffed animals. Bargain-priced, oversized, you’ll-grow-into-it-eventually clothing from the outlet center. The scuffed-up dress shoes I wore during our twice-yearly visits to church. The flower-print bedspread I’d had since I was ten. Bubblegum pop CDs purchased with babysitting money. Paperback teen books with yellowing pages and cracked spines.
I stuffed everything I owned into seven black trash bags and carried it out to the dumpster in the middle of the night.
I’d wanted to get rid of my mattress too. I didn’t need a mattress! I would sleep in the brand-new insect-repelling sleeping bag I planned to buy at Camping Kingdom. Unfortunately, the mattress was too large for me to carry on my own to the dumpster. I resorted to wiping the whole thing down with isopropyl alcohol three times a day.
Throwing everything away really wasn’t necessary. All the literature said you had to do was seal anything soft into giant Ziploc bags and wait two weeks. Lice die within forty-eight hours without a blood meal. The two-week waiting period was for the eggs. Nits, the iridescent mini pearls females deposit on the host’s hair shaft using a sticky substance spewed out of their mouths, hatch within a week or two. Without a warm scalp awaiting their arrival, the newborn nymphs die.
Clothing could be twice laundered in hot water, dried on high heat, and then run over with a high-suction vacuum. That last part was supposed to unstick the nits. Certain shoes could withstand washing machine-dryer combination, my lone pair of sneakers included. My Sketchers emerged lint-covered, the mesh lattice of toe fabric ripped in two places, but more or less intact.
Non-washing machine-proof items could be bathed in gasoline. I hadn’t tried this last remedy yet but planned to. A boy from my grade had a father who owned gas stations. I’d confront the boy, push-up bra-clad (my mom had a few that no longer fit her but still fit me), when school started in two weeks.
I wasn’t convinced that any of it—washing, drying, vacuuming, and bagging everything up for two weeks—would be enough. What if one particular bug withstood the high-heat dryer cycle? Or a lone nit remained stuck to a single fiber despite the whole hour I spent running a vacuum suction hose against the item?
Somehow, some way, I would miss something.
A few bugs. Nimble ones, who’d wiggle their way through a Ziploc’s sealant Sharp-teethed suckers, who’d dig in their proboscises, holding fast despite the Bissell’s 220 air-watt suction power.
That’s why I had to throw everything away.
“What the fuck happened to your room?” my mother asked when she finally entered my bedroom. “Where’s all your stuff?” Three days had passed since my dumpster trip. I’d managed to keep her out of there until that point.
Gone were the taped-up posters and magazine pages. So too was the clutter that usually held court on top of my wardrobe, the magazines and drug-store make-up. My floor, usually a mass grave of felled books and clothing, was bare too.
Instead of bed sheets and a bedspread, I was sleeping in a tangle of towels. I planned to throw those away too, once I’d saved up enough money for the bug-proof sleeping bag.
When my mother entered, I was completely naked underneath my towel nest. I angled my body toward the window behind my bed, pulled my knees toward my chest. My face was turned away from my mother’s. She tapped my bare shoulder.
“Ellie,” she asked me. “What the hell is going on?”
I turned to face her, my head hanging upside down off the mattress. She wore Winnie the Pooh-print scrubs that strained against her newly chunky frame. A former high school pole-vaulter, she’d carried her lithe, lean frame through two pregnancies (one of them a late-term miscarriage) and well into her thirties. She’d gained close to ten pounds in the last few weeks. Her new co-workers at the retirement home had turned her on to chocolate-covered coffee beans, which she munched throughout the day.
I wrapped one of the towels around me, sat up on the bed, and turned to face the woman who had birthed me. Nymph to adult. I explained in a low, dulcet tones that I’d decided to part with a number of my belongings. It was called “decluttering.” I was trying to become a person whose existence did not depend on material possessions. I was contemplating a conversion to Buddhism.
My mother wasn’t buying it. She pressed me furthering, asking me where everything I owned—everything she’d bought for me—had gone. When I finally told her that my belongings met their fate in the metal maw of the neighborhood dumpster, she threatened to chaperone me to the end of the street and watch while I dug out my possessions.
I reminded her that trash collection took place on Tuesday. It was Friday morning. I’d timed my dumpster dump so that it would coincide with trash collection day.
“Jesus Christ,” she said. “You didn’t even think to at least donate some of it?” Gray roots poked out of her greasy, home-highlighted hair. I remembered all the times I’d checked her scalp, usually when she fell asleep on the living-room couch after a graveyard shift.
I didn’t mention the bugs. I didn’t have to. My mother had already endured enough of my extermination efforts to know the real reason why I’d thrown everything away.
By this point, she’d treated my head with lice-killing shampoo no fewer than four times, picked through my hair (dried out and frizzy because of Nix’s strong-but-not-quite-industrial-grade chemicals) with a metal-toothed comb, extracting bugs I swore I could feel crawling around, talked me out of shaving off my eyebrows, and inspected my head on countless occasions.
“What a waste,” she said, eying my empty room. “Do you have any idea how much all of this cost? If you’d donated your things, someone else could have used them. And you could have applied for a tax deduction.”
Later that day, I found a stack of folded-up clothing on my bed. Cast-offs from her own closet. Shapeless sacks from Dress Barn. A men’s T-shirt, size large, that read “Third Annual Turkey Trot.” A bird that was probably supposed to be a turkey but looked more like a female peacock (a pea hen; our neighborhood was famous for its feral peacock population, the result of a long-dead local eccentric’s adoption of a male-female pair back in the ‘70s) dancing with a manatee, the aquatic ungulate after which our county was named.
There was a yellow Post It stuck to the top of the clothing stack.
“You can’t go to school in a towel,” she’d written in blue ballpoint pen.
The active ingredient in Nix lice shampoo is permethrin, a chemical in the pyrethroid family of insecticides. First synthesized in 1973, permethrin mimics pyrethrin, a natural-occurring pesticide in certain chrysanthemum species. Permethrin is a neurotoxin: it disrupts the bugs’ neuronal function, resulting in muscle spasms, paralysis, and, eventually, death.
The first time Mr. X asked me to call him Todd, I was trying to get his daughter to poop.
“You’re such a natural at this,” he said. Nothing felt natural about the situation. I was holding Sophie, nearly three at the time, over an adult-sized toilet, making a whistling sound by blowing air between my two front incisors.
Mr. X and his wife, a psychiatrist at the hospital where my mother worked, were from New York. They had different ideas about things like potty training. They were using a diaper-free method called “Elimination Communication.”
Elimination Communication (or “EC,” as Dr. X called it) was based on the idea that the child will signal when he or she has to “go.” I’d been babysitting Sophie for about a month and a half by this point, had learned to read her “visual cues.” As soon as the child “signals,” you were supposed to bring him or her to the toilet, position him/her over the yawning porcelain, and make a certain sound, thereby prompting the child to eliminate. For Sophie, full-face bunches meant poop while slight lip tightening meant pee.
When Dr. X first explained EC to me, she said something about Pavlov’s dogs, which I found strange (who compares their toddler to a dog?) until I looked up the reference later. Dr. X, extremely thin (it seemed almost unimaginable that she’d ever been pregnant, but there were framed pictures in the house to prove it), dark-haired, and strikingly pretty, reminded me of a cross between Natalie Portman and Keira Knightley. All of my reference points at that age were movie related. The library—specifically its DVD section—served as my personal haven. I checked out ten movies per week, the maximum number allowed by the county library system.
Despite Mr. X’s praise, my “cueing” was not having the desired effect. Sophie squirmed over the empty toilet bowl. Her two big toenails (what Dr. X admonished me to call the “hallux.” Dr. X wanted Sophie to be raised in an environment in which the correct scientific terminology was used) were painted deep pink. We’d been playing nail salon before Sophie decided she wanted to read instead. When she wasn’t with me, Sophie attended a Montessori-style “learning center” whose emphasis was on having the child “teach him or herself.” All learning was play and vice versa. The child was supposed to direct the action, which meant Sophie and I switched activities quite frequently, usually the very moment she tired of something. I worried what this was doing to her attention span, whether she’d ever develop one in the first place.
“I don’t know, Mr. X,” I said. “I think it’s a no-go. What do you think, Sophie?”
Sophie squealed, kicking her feet against my chest.
“You know,” Mr. X said as I lifted Sophie off the toilet, “You can call me Todd.” He passed me Sophie’s floral-print leggings. “Even my students call me that.”
“Oh, well, um, thank you, Mr. X,” I said, taking the leggings. “I mean Todd.”
My arms became unusually strong that summer, what with all the trips back and forth to the bathroom, my hovering the girl over the toilet bowl. Sophie was not big enough to sit on the toilet on her own without falling in, and the Xs did not own one of those toddler-sized toilet platforms, perhaps for moral and/or psychological reasons.
All the accidents (and there were a lot of them, as you can probably imagine, considering the fact that my charge was a diaper-less two-year-old) were worth it. The Xs paid me $14 an hour to watch Sophie and perform “light housekeeping” (i.e., laundering Sophie’s soiled clothing in the Xs’ gleaming, energy-efficient machines), what seemed like an ungodly amount of money to me at the time. In my three years of babysitting, the most I’d ever made was $7 an hour.
It wasn’t even real babysitting, not when you considered the fact that Mr. X was always home. Mr. X was a film professor at the local college. He was using the summer to finish his book, a treatise on new German cinema. I had no idea what that meant, that German cinema could be divided into categories of “old” and “new.” Did “new” mean better? Or just new? I had no idea.
The second Todd incident occurred about a week after the first.
I’d just put Sophie down for her second nap (she took three a day, which seemed sort of excessive to me and perhaps explained her rambunctious nature, though I was no expert on childhood) and was reading at the Xs’ kitchen island, a large marble slab, black with cervix-pink striations. I brought what I hoped would be perceived as intelligent books to the Xs’ home. This time, it was French novel (the library had a very slim French-language section; its contents spanned one-sixteenth of a single shelf) whose title I was not entirely sure how to pronounce. I was taking French in school, a thoroughly useless language according to my mother (“Everyone in Florida speaks Spanish.”) I liked its unusefulness, the way its chunky syllables clotted my mouth.
I heard the padding of footsteps down the stairs but didn’t look up from my book. I was glad I’d checked the impulse just moments ago to grab the mini Larousse from my backpack.
Unlike our ranch-style house, the Xs’ mini-manse (they’d never call it a McMansion, but that’s exactly what it was, in a gated community and everything) had two sets of stairs, one leading up to the bedrooms and home offices (both Dr. and Mrs. X had one) and another leading down into what most people would call a “rec room” but what the Xs called “The Angelica.”
The Angelica was basically a mini movie theatre, complete with projector, pull-down screen (plasma flat-screens were an abomination, Mr. X would later tell me), and three floor-to-ceiling bookshelves filled with alphabetized films on VHS, DVD, and Betamax. The room’s name baffled me (the only Angelica I knew was the pig-tailed Rugrats she-tyrant, and I highly doubted she was the mini-cinema’s namesake), though I didn’t dare ask after its significance.
“What are you reading?” Mr. X asked. I didn’t look up at him at first. Instead, I looked down at his feet. It occurred to me that I’d never seen Mr. X with shoes on. Did he even own shoes? (Of course he owned shoes. He lived in a McMansion! He was a professor! Then again, the college where he taught, a public liberal-arts school, sort of “hippy-dippy” place according to my mother, might be exactly the kind of institution with a footwear-optional policy.) I memorized the contours of his feet—the dried, slightly flaky nail folds encircling each of his big toes. (Was the plural of “hallux” halluxes?) The mini tufts of oily hair crowning each digit. Mr. X’s feet were olive-toned, the color of newly wet sand. His grandfather’s original last name (“before those bastards at Ellis Island changed it,” he would later tell me) was something long and Greek and complicated.
At the end of the summer, when I reverse-engineered the infestation, working backwards using the kitchen calendar (it was a hospital freebie, joint-pain medication promo; on each page, silver-haired retirees with suspiciously unlined faces engaged in a variety of “action” sports; June was rollerblading), I determined that this, the time of our first movie, must have been around the time I was first infected. Sophie wasn’t even itching yet. The lice incubation period is about 4-6 weeks; a mother louse can spawn fifty generations in the time it takes you to read a complicated French book without the aid of a dictionary.
That day, the first of many we spent in Angelica’s cool, dark womb, we watched a black-and-white movie (Mr. X called them “films”) about a Parisian couple. The woman (short-haired, American, nearly as thin as Dr. X but blonde instead of brunette) spoke in a French accent almost as bad as mine. Her French boyfriend, who looked a bit like JFK (or at least the version of him in my decade-old history textbook), had large, fleshy, almost womanly lips. He spent a lot of time touching his mouth.
Halfway through the film, the baby monitor crackled. I’d brought it down with me, ostensibly to keep tabs on Sophie, but mostly to project a certain impression upon Mr. X. I didn’t want him thinking I was a negligent babysitter.
The crackle was followed by a gurgle, then the unmistakable siren of a Sophie squeal. I jumped. The baby monitor, a chunky light-blue model that looked more like a stylish cell phone than an infant appliance, fell off my lap and onto the floor.
“I’m so sorry, Mr. X,” I said. The hem of my t-shirt rode up ever so slightly as I bent to pick up the device. Frigid air licked the inch or so of exposed skin. Cinemas, Mr. X would tell me (later, of course—there were so many laters) always needed to be cold, so as to ensure attention on the part of the viewer. It was a rule.
“It’s Todd,” he said, pausing the movie. “And don’t worry about it.”
Did the first bug crawl onto my head then, when I went to check on Sophie to see if she had eliminated? (She had not.) Or was it the next day, when we watched a Bertolucci film, the Italian director’s newest. The movie wasn’t even in theaters yet. Mr. X had scored an advance copy from a New York friend.
“Do you know who Bernardo Bertolucci is?” Mr. X asked as he popped the DVD into the player’s plastic mouth. Mr. X was always asking me questions to which he knew I didn’t have the answers. I shook my head. He laughed but didn’t elaborate.
The film followed a trio of twentysomethings in late-60s Paris, two possibly incestuous French siblings and their Leonardo DiCaprio-looking American friend, all three of whom were obsessed with movies as much as they were with each other.
Did the bug transfer happen that first time on the couch, in the middle of the Bertolucci movie? (That and all the other times were on the couch.) Was it possible that Mr. X had the bugs even before I did? That Sophie passed them to him and then he to me? He loved digging his face into the nape of Sophie’s neck, covering that juncture where hair meets skin with kisses. Lice love the nape too, a warm, slice of supple beachhead. It’s often the first place they bite.
Now, I wear scarves or collars most of time. I like to keep that part of my body covered. It’s so I don’t have to see Dr. X’s face. She was a doctor. Of course she’d memorized the shape of her husband’s mouth.
Lizzy Steiner is a writer, editor, and teacher from Sarasota, Florida. She has an MFA in fiction from Columbia University and studied English and French at Wesleyan University. Her work has appeared in SRQ Magazine, Allbodies, Lit Hub’s CrimeReads, and Dark Moon Lilith Press. She has written a short story collection and is currently at work on a novel. For more information about Lizzy, check out her website.