She is not the best listener, but I can only complain to my friends so many times before they stop taking my calls. So, as I was telling my cat, except for work, how often did I leave my apartment anyway? Why, then, since they resumed stay-at-home orders, have I been feeling discombobulated?
I know that even if museums, theaters, and movie theaters were open, I’d be sitting here weighing the pros and cons and finally deciding that I should just stay put. I’m reticent to abandon my safe place—this lousy one-bedroom—even for Dora Maar at the Getty (too far), any drama with the original New York cast at the Ahmanson (too cavernous), or a well-reviewed foreign film at the Los Feliz 3 (talking, phones, proximity of people). True, in the past I’ve attended author readings at Skylight (only a 10-minute walk), but it can get awfully hot and stuffy when someone trendy draws a crowd, and I usually bail and scurry home before the Q&A and book signing. But after the complimentary plastic glass of wine is served.
The cat stands on her hind legs and pats me on the arm, cat-talk for get away from the damn computer and feed me. Before she advances to biting—her way of more forcefully getting her point across—I hightail it to the kitchen and pour cat treats into her bowl. I don’t know what they put in those things, but she’s addicted and I’ve become her dealer. Junk food for all! I grab a bag of baked cheese crisps, and settle in on the couch to watch Downton Abbey for the tenth time. So comforting to know that all will end well. Minus the various degrees of PTSD that must be eating away at them for the rest of their lives.
I’m concerned about the persistent dry cough I’ve had since telecommuting, so text my primary care provider.
“Fever?” she asks.
“No fever, no test.”
It sounds like the chorus of a reggae song. I don’t sing because I have a sore throat. And can’t carry a tune.
Self-diagnosing, I guess that it could be a dust allergy or acid reflux. Or stress. Or a cat allergy. Or Covid-19 and my doctor is too fed up with the hundreds of phone calls and texts she’s getting every day to bother with someone like me who isn’t emergency room-worthy. It’s cool. Whatever.
A little black cat looks out the window of the building next door. He’s the only visible sign of life among all the sounds bleeding through the walls: loud voices in Zoom meetings, barking dogs demanding attention, and bad singing accompanied by worse guitar playing. My cat is blind, but with windows open, maybe she senses her lonely neighbor. They cannot have a play date. Blindness has made my cat wary and all too ready to attack. She’d shred the poor thing.
Summer in L.A. Heat waves. Boredom. Hot flushes. “Menopause, the gift that keeps on giving,” says a Facebook friend. I won’t call them hot flashes because it’s technically inaccurate, duration-wise. They are the bane of my life, post cancer, since I’m not supposed to take HRT any more. Estrogen = bad. It really sucks. Much worse than the stupid dry cough.
“I know,” I whine to the cat. “How selfish of me to bitch about overheating 12 times a day when other women have gone bald or died. If it helps, I am experiencing survivor’s guilt.”
“Helps how?” says the cat, trying to interest me in a game of sink your teeth into the human’s leg. But I stick to my hot flush rant because I’m not done and have a lot of pent up anger that’s apparently been waiting for the city-wide quarantine mandate to burst forth.
“The men in the medical establishment—and I include pharmaceutical companies—are in charge of setting research and funding priorities. They demonstrate scant intellectual curiosity about such an aberrant condition as the body’s inability to regulate internal temperature. Because the bodies belong to old women. So who cares? The problem of heat flare-ups, and sometimes their opposite—extreme cold and chills—is brushed aside as inconsequential, or worse, made the subject of ridicule and mockery.”
The cat selects one of the small rubbery mutant monster women from my collection and tosses it into the air. Her favorite one to play with is part buxom blond, part tarantula. She bats it across the room and then can’t find it.
Even worse than the dry cough and the overheating is the curse of bed bugs. Where did they come from? Where do they live when they’re not engaged in nocturnal blood sucking? I haven’t seen a single one crawling on my bed or anywhere else, but I’m covered in bites. My arms, legs, neck, face, stomach, and back are spotted, red, and itchy.
Bed bugs are devious. They travel up, down, and across behind the walls. They can slip through the narrowest crack in the plaster, the thinnest separation between baseboard and wall, electrical sockets, hide between the pages of books or the seams of clothing. They’re drawn to the carbon dioxide we exhale, the stillness of a body at rest. Bastards! Sneaking into my apartment, storming my bed at night, feasting on my blood. I sleep with the lights on, wake numerous times during the night, throw off the blanket, gazing around wide- and wild-eyed, but nothing anywhere. I hate you all!
In an effort to protect myself, I wear leggings, socks, a turtleneck, and more socks on my hands when I go to sleep. It doesn’t help. So-called experts on the internet say they can’t bite through clothing, but they’re wrong. The same experts say traps work. Wrong again.
My near-feral cat, who will not, under any circumstances, suffer the indignity of being picked up, much less placed in a cat carrier, makes hiring a professional pest control company impossible. The cat and I cannot stay on the premises while it’s being doused with toxic bed bug-killing chemicals, nor can I get the cat out the door.
I’ve been through this before. Years ago. Pre-cat. The ordeal of emptying drawers and closets, bundling all one's clothes in plastic garbage bags, then rotating everything through the dryer on high heat, not to mention finding a place to spend at least six hours during the spraying, at least twice, two weeks apart, is not appealing. And to do that during a pandemic? And heat wave? Instead, I go the cheap and, as it turns out, completely ineffective route of purchasing an assortment of bed bug sprays from Home Depot, along with a white powder called Diatomaceous Earth that I buy online. The manufacturer’s claims of insect dehydration and death are not true.
I must add that they’re not just active at night. Rest your hand on the sofa arm or prop yourself up on your elbows, look away for a moment, and they will strike out of nowhere. They bite three times in quick succession—known as breakfast, lunch, and dinner—and then disappear, leaving you madly itching and with slightly less blood.
Finally, the critters have no useful purpose. None whatsoever. They aren’t pollinators like bees, don’t prey on annoying or harmful insects in the style of dragonflies consuming mosquitoes and fruit flies, and don’t aerate and enrich soil like earthworms. Nor do they have any natural predators. They’re a non-lethal, madness-inducing plague on humanity. No vaccine will save us.
Weeks go by. Months. The summer heat wave is replaced by an autumn heat wave. My dry cough is gone. The coronavirus is still going strong (but not in my apartment). The bed bugs are multiplying (wherever they’re hiding). If I ever saw one I’d crush it to death between my fingers, wipe it off with a paper towel, and throw it in the trash. At least I have a good union job. I’m paid to stay home and continue my (job-related) education. Webinars R Us.
What have I learned? That I am not a resilient person. Numerous webinar presenters insist that resilience is essential now, what with all the changes wrought by the pandemic, and they are going to teach me how to change my thoughts and behavior. At the drop of a hat. On demand. Turn on a dime. I will learn to “view life’s inevitable challenges as opportunities” via “visionary new ways to be effective.”
I think they underestimate my stubbornness and dislike of psychobabble. When things return to normal, I’ll be all set, and they’ll be the ones who struggle to re-adjust, insistent on dragging forward the old new ways.
On an especially bad day, I call a friend I haven’t spoken to in a while, slightly younger but way ahead career-wise. I pretend I’m talking to the cat so she won’t get jealous. Cat treats at the ready.
The friend tells me about a mutual acquaintance, my age, who just got married for the third time, and that the newlyweds are moving to Paris. How nice, how lucky. Is the pandemic worse there? Not as bad?
I tell her about some of the profiles of people who’ve died from Covid-19, a feature of the PBS Newshour every Friday evening. All the people were loved, loving, many striving to make the world a better place, struck down too soon. I sort of wish the show would also mention names of face covering refusers, a dishonor roll call-out. I want to hear Judy Woodruff say “shitheads.”
After some silence we say good bye.
I consider the rest of the news, politics. Feeling the onset of the urge to gnash my teeth, I fetch my night guard. Or is it bite guard?
“Calm down!” says the cat. The bed bugs don’t bother her. She’s okay with the heat. Pandemic? What pandemic?
“Come play with me. Where is the cat dancer toy?”
I slather on the anti-itch cream, play with her for a while, then search online for a new place to live.
Diane Gurman is a graduate of the Creative Writing Program at New York University . Her short stories have appeared in such literary journals as Gargoyle, Lit, Quarterly West, and Santa Monica Review. Diane also holds a Master’s degree in Library and Information Science from UCLA, and currently works as a librarian in Los Angeles.
Photos of and by Dora Maar.
Isolation ::: John Lennon
Bad Cat ::: Roy Orbison
Me & My Friend The Cat ::: Loudon Wainwright III
Crosseyed Cat ::: Muddy Waters
Bedbug ::: The Mighty Spoiler
Mean Old Bedbug Blues :::: Lonnie Johnson
Cat In The Hallway ::: Tiny Ruins
What’s New Pussycat ::: Los Cadillacs Fabulosos & Fishbone