Sweet Escape (Full Text with Audio)
- onDecember 21, 2017
- Vol.38 Winter 2017
- byYun Ko Eun
- Table for One (Collection of Short Stories)
After the coffeemaker was delivered, he brewed coffee every morning. The aroma would slowly travel from the kitchen to the den and from there to every other room in the house. He had decided to try Ethiopian Yirgacheffe and Indonesian Mandela first. One day, he would drink Yirgacheffe, another day, Mandela. He wasn’t yet able to distinguish the subtle differences between types of coffee, but he soon wanted to taste beans from other countries.
The coffeemaker was the first purchase he’d made with his severance pay. He had lost his job, which he’d had for seven years. He hadn’t started looking for another one immediately, declaring the next six months work-free. He wanted to rest for a little bit while his unemployment benefits were coming in. His second purchase was a DSLR. He joined a photography club but didn’t regularly attend meetings. Still, he did learn how to use the camera from books and the internet. He bought two memory cards, as well as an external hard drive and a netbook. He also bought plane tickets. Two of them. He wanted to leave immediately after his wife, a teacher, began her summer break. They would be heading off on a two-week trip to Europe.
He prepared for those two weeks for two months. After becoming more or less familiar with the camera, he joined a travel club. He bought a guidebook, learned phrases from the languages of the cities they would visit, and read books and watched movies about those cities. Even without work, he had a regular routine. After his wife left for school he would eat breakfast, brew coffee, and carry a mug over to the computer and sit down. When he turned on the computer, a different world opened up in front of him. Thanks to the travel club, he gathered all kinds of information that didn’t show up in the guides. He would jot this information down in his notebook, type it up on the computer, and print it out. He was surprised to realize at one point that bedbugs were mentioned quite often in his printouts.
“Bedbugs, in the twenty-first century? In Europe?” his wife asked. He’d had the same reaction at first. It had been a long time since bedbugs were a part of his daily life. He hadn’t seen a real one even once. When he was in the military, there had been momentary bedbug scares, but even then he hadn’t actually seen a bedbug or been harmed by one in any way.
“Honey, have you maybe been reading too much? You might keep yourself busy enough just looking up the things we need to know.”
His wife smiled as she spoke. She was worried about her husband being unemployed, but at the same time she was quite excited about going to Europe. After three years of marriage, it was their first international vacation since their honeymoon. She was tired, but because of that she was even more excited about the trip.
A week passed and the information he’d collected had been condensed to articles and notes about just a few topics. One of those topics was bedbugs. Information about bedbugs consisted for the most part of personal accounts. He read stories about multiple people. The newlywed couple bitten on a plane, the traveler bitten on a night train—he also read the story of someone who couldn’t tell if it was a bedbug or a mosquito that had bitten her but was pestered by an itch that wouldn’t go away. There was someone else who, after encountering a bedbug at the end of a trip, returned home and suffered from scars that persisted for over six months. Most people saw bedbugs as something unfamiliar, but if you really thought about it, the chance of encountering bedbugs while traveling was very high. Even if you stayed in a clean place, you couldn’t be at ease. Sometimes people at five-star hotels were bitten, too.
Sleep in a place that gets some sunlight. Look at the corners of the bed and the back of the headboard, the seams of the mattress, underneath the baseboard. Look behind frames or calendars or clocks hanging on the wall. Use anti-bedbug tools. This was the strategy he’d worked out. He made a file for things related to bedbugs, and as time went on, that file gradually became thicker. A few days later, anti-bedbug supplies began to arrive at his house, one by one. Lemon, eucalyptus, and mint aroma oils and shower products, cinnamon air freshners, a few sticks of real cinnamon, and even sprays like Tyra-X and Bio Kill.
“You could just smoke instead of doing all this,” his wife said. He’d quit smoking a long time ago, but if it could effectively remove bedbugs, he would have gladly started up again.
“Shall we bring mosquito repellant, too? We could bring the kind with replaceable pads,” his wife suggested. He shook his head. Mosquitoes and bedbugs were undeniably different. You couldn’t put bedbugs in the same category as mosquitoes, lice, or fleas. Bedbugs weren’t just creepy-crawlies. They belonged to the order of Hemiptera insects.
“Bedbugs? They’re insects?”
“Well, yeah. There aren’t many blood-sucking insects, but they’re a special case.”
Bedbugs were complicated. Little by little, he was learning more about them. Unlike most blood-sucking insects, bedbugs were not directly parasitic to their hosts. Instead, they lived in the vicinity of their hosts and crawled out at night to bite them. So if you wanted to get rid of bedbugs, you first had to defend your territory.
“But are those fragrances effective? Are they fragrances that bedbugs like?”
“What do you mean? Bedbugs hate them. We have to cover our bodies with things that bedbugs avoid.”
His wife, who had been looking intently at the inside of her suitcase, yawned. He was tired, too. He hadn’t stepped out all day, but he was overcome with exhaustion just from packing and looking up travel information. As he started to feel sleepy, he realized that he hadn’t brewed any coffee this morning. Recently he’d spent more days like this, without coffee. Close to midnight, he brewed some Brazilian Santos.
One day before the trip, he posted in his club’s online forum. Like many of the members, his comments were imbued with the excitement and fear of someone leaving the next day for an unknown world. Despite the fact that he might have to face pickpockets, contagious diseases, terrorist threats, and bedbugs, he was still excited, he wrote. He also mentioned that he’d invested 100,000 won toward bedbug prevention. The aroma oils, salves, and medicines he’d bought really had cost almost that much. He didn’t forget to add that this was all thanks to what he’d learned from the other club members.
The plane carrying the couple finally left the ground, and their regular life disappeared beneath a window the size of a palm. His wife was filled with excitement and ordered glass after glass of wine. He was excited too, but something he’d read in the airport lounge that morning weighed on his mind. There were twelve responses to his post. Most of the members had praised his preparedness, wished him a good trip, or warned him to be careful. Just one had been different, and that comment alone stayed with him.
“Bedbugs are a crapshoot.”
With each change in accommodation, he sprayed their two soft-shell suitcases with bedbug repellant until they were dripping wet. He showered with body wash in a scent that bedbugs hated, applied lotion in a scent that bedbugs hated, and sprayed the pillows, bed sheets, blankets and more with a scent of aroma oil that bedbugs hated. He didn’t forget to check the mattress seams, cracks in the wallpaper, and the backs of picture frames. Around the midpoint of the vacation, his wife spoke up.
“The theme of this trip really has been bedbugs!”
Her fatigue wasn’t from bedbugs. It was from a husband who couldn’t break free of them. Once they returned to Korea, she would have to go back to work teaching summer school, without much time to rest. He felt sorry that she had to do that.
Thanks to the big fuss he’d made, he didn’t actually encounter any bedbugs. Of course, like that person had said, bedbugs were a crapshoot, so he seemed to have gotten lucky too. If not for the article he saw online before boarding his return flight, he might have at least felt calm on the plane. But he did see it, an article with pictures and text displaying in no uncertain terms what he so vaguely feared. Korea was no longer safe. Since 2006, there had been intermittent cases of people suffering from bedbugs, but now those cases were becoming more common. A dormitory in September 2006, a North Korean labor camp in November 2006, a sports training facility in December 2006, a hotel room in March 2007 . . . The most recent outbreak had been recorded just a few days ago. A woman who’d been living in New York had come back to Korea, and shortly after, her whole body had been bitten by an unknown bug. She’d brought the bug’s body and its larva to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, but it wasn’t any ordinary bug. It was an insect, a blood-sucking insect—a bedbug. What had happened was that a few New York super-bedbugs had latched onto her bags and traveled back with her. The article was speckled with dot-like pictures of the bodies of a few bedbugs, presumably from New York.
Once the airplane reached an altitude of a few thousand feet, his heart began to race again. He told his wife that tens of thousands of bedbugs were crossing borders unchecked at this very moment. She glared at him in response, so he kept his mouth shut after that. Crossing between the stars, stuck in the sky like bedbugs, they returned to Korea. A few weeks later, his wife returned to school to teach summer classes. After checking that he was still receiving his unemployment benefits, he returned to his pre-trip life. Thankfully, there weren’t any bedbugs stuck to their suitcases. The floor was always clean because he vacuumed every morning, and the aroma of coffee wafted pleasantly through the den. If only his wife, who didn’t even spend that much time at home, would stop shedding hair all over the house, his life would be peaceful.
He opened up the local newspaper. There, he encountered them again. Bedbugs. He read that the studio apartment of the woman who’d returned from New York was in Sinchon. His house was in Sinchon, too. A few days later, he learned that her apartment was not far from his own.
After the incident, the woman moved. The people who lived on the same floor as her and her bedbugs emptied out too. What if the bedbugs were sniffing out the blood of their next host? They’d already established themselves by driving someone away. Adult bedbugs could live for a year at room temperature, and they could go hungry for sixty days in the spring and up to 175 in the winter without dying. He pulled out the coffee he’d bought on the trip as he continued to read. The sound of the bag tearing seemed particularly heavy. The inside was filled to the brim with shiny, brown coffee beans. He grabbed a handful of them and thought for the first time about how coffee beans resembled bedbugs. Of course, a round, flat bedbug would have to drink a lot of blood to become as plump as these beans. A hungry bedbug is the size of a grain of rice. Fully grown at five to eight millimeters long, with short forewings and rudimentary hind wings, they almost have no wings at all.
Short bristles stick out from the coffee bean, held between thumb and index finger, and it begins to shed its outer layer. Bedbug nymphs must shed their skin five times to become adult bedbugs. The coffee bean sheds five times. The females lay five eggs, one millimeter in diameter, per day, and they hatch about ten days later. A week after that, they can drink blood, and after six to eight more weeks, they are fully grown. When these round, flat vampires drink blood, their whole bodies are dyed crimson and their abdomens distend. They become as plump as this coffee bean. Bedbugs, coffee, bedbugs, coffee. He spilled the coffee. The fat, brown beans clattered as they fell to the floor. He knelt down and began to pick them up.
He grabbed his mug and went to the computer, but the amount of coffee in the cup didn’t decrease even a drop. For the first time, the scent filling the house seemed rancid. He opened the window and poured the cold coffee down the drain. He felt like bedbugs were taking over his mind. He opened up the local newspaper once again. After a short while, he began to search online for other local newspaper articles. The world was being contaminated by bedbugs. A few years earlier, New York had declared war on them, at a time when bedbug numbers were the highest they’d been since World War II. New York wasn’t the only city to declare a war on bedbugs, or at least take note of them. There had been city-wide extermination campaigns, and even whole towns shut down by bedbugs. Every continent was crawling with them.
It only takes one week before a newborn bedbug can drink human blood. As the human birth rate decreases more and more, the number of bedbugs is increasing exponentially each year. Their fecundity makes our own low birth rate all the more unsettling. Bedbugs are no longer just in the barracks of war zones or the shabby accommodations of some unfamiliar travel destination. Clothing, socks, beds, sofas—they’ll latch on and take a ride anywhere. Stuck to bits of clothing, they even ride on trains and planes. They go to five-star hotels, and dorms, too. And now, they’d come here.
The twenty-four-inch soft-shell suitcase made an appearance once again. He took out the travel supplies he’d placed inside, the bedbug repellants like Tyra-X and Bio Kill and the lemon and eucalyptus aroma oils. As he busily moved around in front of the suitcase laid out on the floor, he didn’t look much different from when he’d been preparing for travel. But this time, there was no trip. This time was real life.
After his wife left for work, he made breakfast, washed the dishes, and cleaned every corner of the house. It was a schedule similar to before the trip, but now it took a lot more time. What had been possible in two hours before now took twice as long. When he finished cleaning, he was peckish again. He ate lunch and did the dishes, and by then it was almost two in the afternoon. He spent the rest of the day on the internet and reading books and newspapers to learn more about bedbugs. The more he knew about them, the longer it took to clean. Bedbugs were nothing other than a medium by which he could learn about the world. Thanks to bedbugs, he’d learned how to clean. Thanks to bedbugs, he’d learned how to cook. Thanks to bedbugs, he’d learned about real estate. And thanks to bedbugs, he’d gotten to know his neighbors.
The apartment he lived in was within a one-kilometer radius of the studio where the incident had occurred. Most of the ten households in his building, from the basement to the fourth floor, knew about the incident. Well, maybe not most, but the senior who lived in B102, who distributed the free local newspaper to the building mailboxes each morning—certainly he knew. There was also a good chance that the woman in 102 who dug through the newspaper looking for coupons knew as well. Same for the college student in 202. Considering how enthusiastic he’d been back when a disinfection company had been called to sterilize the whole apartment, it didn’t seem that he’d be insensitive to this issue. The chances that the man next door in 302 also knew were high. They ran into each other quite often. The man in 302 was also a bum.
The weekly local paper recounted in detail the neighborhood bedbug stories that were left out or abbreviated in national papers. It relayed the bedbugs’ movement. They were closing in, from more than a kilometer away, now down to 900 or even 800 meters. Someone from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention said in an interview that an early response was important. That is to say, if you discovered a bedbug in your house, you were to report it to the Center rather than just rashly getting rid of it yourself.
He bought paper weather stripping at the grocery store. It may have been weather stripping, but he was going to use it as a bug blocker rather than a wind blocker. He decided to call it “bedbug guard.” As he exited the store and walked home, bedbugs, too, were moving toward his house. As he neared home, step by step, the bedbugs were also getting centimeter by centimeter closer to their new destination. When he turned his head toward the apartment, the building he’d lived in for three years somehow felt unfamiliar. A strange and awkward energy, unimaginable even two hours earlier when he’d gone out, emanated from the crimson building. War was in the air.
He applied bedbug guard to the windows, bedroom doors, and entryway. He even installed it in the cracks of the windows that looked out onto the third floor hallway. Just having applied it comforted him. But the day after the next heavy rain, the weather stripping—no, the bedbug guard—had fallen right off.
“It doesn’t work like that.”
That’s what the man in 302, the man he saw so often, said when they ran into each other. He and the man in 302 were sitting side by side on a bench that overlooked the apartment, biting into popsicles.
“What I’m saying is, just because you lock your doors tight doesn’t mean it’ll solve the problem. If you read the paper, you’ll know that those bastards don’t distinguish between houses. As long as we’re sharing the same walls, this is a problem for the whole apartment building. It could go on to become a neighborhood problem, maybe even a national problem, but hopefully there won’t be too many other people who get involved.”
“Maybe . . .”
“What I’m saying is that we have a common enemy,” said 302 while biting into his popsicle with a snap, as if he were breaking something.
The man took a large bite out of his own popsicle and looked at his neighbor from 302. He thought about asking whether he’d seen the newspaper.
“Hey, a few days ago, did you maybe . . .?”
“Yeah, it was me.”
“What . . . what do you mean?”
“You applied weather stripping to stop the bedbugs, right? The stuff they sell at King Mart. It was me who pulled it off.”
He took another large bite to hide his confusion. 302 continued to speak in a low, scratchy voice.
“I was going to find you and tell you about it at some point. But today we just happened to run into each other. It’s been three years since you moved here, right?”
He was flustered by what the man from 302 was saying, unable to ask why he’d removed the bedbug guard. 302 said that they had to approach the situation from more of a macro-scale.
“What I mean is that blocking the threshold and crevices in the hall windows won’t fix anything. It’s because bedbugs crawl between walls. We’re already sharing the same wall. The same wall, which means we’re sharing an enemy too! Bedbugs can stick themselves to a human body, or furniture, or the inside of a bag, and then just enter this building. Take the mail that’s delivered here every day. The bedbugs can jam themselves into the crevices of the mail and come into our homes. Schools, offices, neighbor’s houses, and cafes, too—even riding a taxi just once can bring bedbugs in.”
The bedbug guard conversation was dying out. Even so, the man from 302 had piqued his interest. He saw the man finish his popsicle and put the leftover stick on the bench, then he took one last bite himself and put his own popsicle stick on top of the other. Like he was making the sign of the cross with them.
His neighbor looked at him.
“You can’t throw that away just anywhere.”
He quickly picked up his stick. His neighbor’s stick, too.
It was common sense to any resident of multi-family housing that pet owners had to ensure their cats and dogs didn’t bother the neighbors. But what about the bedbugs that were crawling between homes with nothing to stop them? A group strategy was necessary. The street’s neighborhood association was being raised from the ashes for this very reason. The more people banded together, the faster the bedbugs moved too. According to the newspapers, it wasn’t certain whether or not they’d originated in that New Yorker’s studio, but the bedbugs were traveling far and wide. Recently, an apartment only 500 meters away from their own had been overtaken.
A week later, some of the residents of the apartment formed a bedbug removal group. The name of the group was WWB (World Without Bedbugs). The leader was the man from 302. Afraid that no one else would participate, they made a rule that one person from every household had to attend meetings. More neighbors than expected were aware of bedbugs, though, so the attendance rate was surprisingly high. They were one. They were brought together by the sense of fellowship that people feel when they all live at the same street number in homes with the exact same layout. These were people whose fridges were all in the same place in their apartments, whose stovetops were in the same place, whose washing machines were in the same place, and who even went to the bathroom in the same place. And more than anything, they had the same enemy.
The first meeting took place in 101, with light refreshments. The senior in B102 talked about his own experiences with bedbugs, and someone told an anecdote about bedbugs and Chung Ju-yung, the founder of Hyundai. There was even someone who’d ended up fighting with her study-abroad roommate because of bedbugs. The man hadn’t suffered from bedbugs himself, but he had a lot to talk about. The further they delved into conversation, the more people began to scratch their bodies. By the time the meeting was over, someone’s leg was reddish and swollen. It was the bedbugs. Even before any had even entered their building, residents were already scratching the places that would be bitten. After the meeting, a few of them headed over to a neighborhood fried chicken joint. They complained about the menaces other than bedbugs that plagued them all. Someone suggested they continue meeting even if the bedbug issue was resolved. Clapping followed, and ideas about how they’d make use of WWB came pouring out. A world without beggars, a world without bias, a world without bullying—they thought of everything the world could do without until late into the night.
WWB usually met once a week, but they didn’t always just eat and drink—they also offered bedbug education. They trained residents on the specific scent of bedbugs, something only people who’d personally suffered from them could know.
“Bedbugs give off a certain scent from their chest region,” he said, “and it’s thought that this scent protects them from enemies. Scientists think that in ancient times, bedbugs lived off of the blood of bats in caves, and there have been experiments showing that if you apply bedbug secretions to the mealworms that bats eat, the bats won’t touch them.”
A smell would emanate as soon as you opened the door to a room full of bedbugs, he told his neighbors. For that to happen, though, there had to be a lot of bedbugs, and someone who knew what bedbugs smelled like had to open the door. WWB decided that in order to overcome their enemy, they first had to know it. There were just two residents who knew the smell of bedbugs. They were the senior in B102, who’d seen a lot of bedbugs in his youth, and the piano teacher in 402, who had dealt with them while studying abroad. They taught everyone what bedbugs smelled like using cilantro bought at the market. The student in 202 who’d just returned from a trip to Hong Kong smelled the cilantro and wrinkled her face.
“Ugh, it’s like nail polish! When I was travelling, I specifically asked to have my food made without this. The smell is too strange.”
Each household took a little bit of cilantro home. And exactly one week later, they gathered it all up and threw it away. They didn’t know how familiar they’d become with the scent of bedbugs, but the endeavor had certainly been effective at cultivating a sense of revulsion toward them.
At WWB meetings, they also learned how to look for clues, traces of bedbugs like eggshells, molted skin, and excrement. He used the camera and memory cards he’d bought for the trip to record all this information. The more he recorded, the more widely he had to clean. The house was the same as ever, but the crevices to clean were ever-increasing. He now vacuumed two or three times a day. And each time, he saw fallen hairs tracing his wife’s path of movement and became cross. He’d been washing his blankets a little more often, too. He went up to the roof to disinfect his blanket in the sun, and the man from 302 was there, smiling awkwardly. He was holding a few blankets in his hands as well.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention was no longer in its initial stage of response to the bedbug outbreak. They said that if you found a bedbug in your house, you shouldn’t throw it out, you should immediately call the experts and have them deal with it. The bedbugs were now a reality. The woman in 102 had been bitten. At first, they couldn’t tell if it was a bedbug or some sort of mosquito that was active through the autumn. But the members of WWB pooled their knowledge. On his trip, the man had run into someone who’d been bitten by bedbugs on a night train. The traveler’s legs had been bitten in rows of threes and fours. Using his own legs as an example, he’d explained the difference between bedbug bites and non-bedbug bites. The man was now able to use that information at the meeting.
“Bedbugs usually bite to a three-four-three beat. Three bites, four bites, three bites—like this. If you’re bitten at specific intervals of several centimeters, it’s almost certainly bedbugs. And if you look at the middle of the bite, there will be puncture marks, too.”
That was exactly what it looked like. It was clear to anyone who saw the bites that they were from bedbugs. Several people, including the man, nodded their heads in certainty. The woman from 102 scratched her salve-covered parts and wrinkled her nose.
“How did they suddenly go from being five hundred meters away to being here? Does that mean they’ve spread to the whole neighborhood?”
Someone responded to 102. “Actually, they reached the alley over there last week. Everyone was hush-hush about it.”
“Because they’re afraid the bedbugs will make the value of their homes go down!”
It was a reason everyone could empathize with. And it meant that the infestation would soon become a secret here as well. The man from 302 spoke.
“Bedbugs don’t move much more than three to six feet at a time. You don’t really think the bedbugs would cross the road to get here, do you? Bedbugs are smarter than you think, and they use a lot of tools. They can bury themselves in the mail delivered to everyone’s house, in second-hand goods and things like tennis shoes or bags. Ultimately, it’s people that are transporting bedbugs. Oh, and they can travel on animals, too.”
“The dog in 102—we don’t know whether or not it’s a host, and if it is, that would mean it was a carrier as well. It goes outside a lot, around the whole neighborhood.”
Until someone said that, the woman in 102 had been hugging her dog lovingly. But within a few days, she was vacuuming the dog’s body all over, and finally she took the nervous creature to a neighborhood a few stations away and returned alone. All the apartment residents were satisfied with what she’d done.
When the bedbugs didn’t disappear even after she switched mattresses, the woman decided to call an extermination service. Because it was important to make sure that word didn’t get out, she called a company that 202 knew well. When people wearing gas masks showed up in front of the apartment, everyone—not just 102—went downstairs to see the exterminators go through her open door. The exterminators didn’t only disinfect the rooms in which bedbugs had appeared. They decided to disinfect other rooms, too, even the living room. And they rounded up all the household furnishings and put each item outside. It felt like moving day, or the annual kimchi-making day. As the experts were blocking doorways and fighting the bedbugs inside, the man sat on the bench in front of the apartment with his feet off the ground.
Six hours later, the exterminators opened the door with a deep breath. They opened the windows, aired the room, and brushed up bedbug corpses alongside dust. They also redid the wallpaper. The method worked. For five days.
In spite of the cleaning operations, 402 was overtaken. There still wasn’t anyone in the house who’d been bitten by bedbugs, but the piano teacher in 402 had managed to grab something that looked like a bedbug larva with a tissue. The fact that there was a larva meant that the bedbugs were settling there. A baby bedbug was even scarier and more horrifying than an adult. Finding hints of such a life, of the emergence of life, on the home front—that was terrifying. Could the bedbugs from the first floor have bypassed the second and third floor to make it to the fourth? Every night, they carried out an expert military operation that was incomprehensible to humans. Now, each time he looked at the ceiling, he was reminded of the fight for survival playing out just one floor above. Clunk, clunk, clunk—the clumsy piano scales playing above lowered his ceiling as they descended, and the house was slowly being squished. Into something like a flat, oval-shaped body. A bedbug.
Bedbugs fed off of rumors. 402 now regularly played passionate songs on the piano, like she was trying to deafen them. And 201, who ran a home sewing business, had been sewing particularly frequently. A few days later she discovered the marks of a regular, raised backstitch not just on her fabric but also on her arm. 402 had only been lightly bitten on her arms and legs, but 201’s whole body was a free-for-all. When 201 showed up at a WWB meeting, her fingers were puffy like sausages. It looked like she’d been stuck with a sewing machine needle, not bitten by bedbugs.
Capture the bedbugs alive. That was WWB’s main mission. Their first priority was to catch the bedbugs, take them to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, and determine exactly what variety they were. But catching them alive wasn’t easy, and all they managed to procure was a few larvae and the intact body of a bedbug that had recently died.
WWB grew busier with its activities. But not everyone was so disturbed by the bedbugs. When he came downstairs full of resolve after a WWB meeting, his wife brought up the topic of loans. That quickly devolved into a conversation about his job search. He lied and said that he had a job lined up that he’d start in the spring. It was almost winter, when bedbug infestations were most severe. All he had to do was rid the neighborhood of the little beasts and actually get a new job before spring came around. His wife spoke.
“They say that there are more bedbug outbreaks in the winter.”
He washed his body with cold water. If he washed with warm water, the chances of bedbugs clinging to him were higher. In the winter, bedbugs preferred warm bodies. Before being bitten by bedbugs, it was better to wash your body with cold water, but if you’d already been bitten, hot water was better. The strategy did vary a bit pre- and post-bite, but he was certain that he wouldn’t have to use the post-bite strategy.
After washing his body with cold water, he went to the bedroom, still bedbug-free. His wife was lying on the bed and leaned her body against his. His wife’s body was hot. The whole room was hot. He got up to lower the temperature. His wife crossed her arms as if she were annoyed and closed her eyes. When he returned, she reopened them. She began to raise his body temperature again, a temperature that he’d worked so hard to lower. His wife crawled over him. He could hear a Hanon piano exercise from the floor above. The keyboard was moving so furiously tonight that he thought it might collapse. Musical notes were treading all over the blanket the man had pulled up to his head. Do-mi-la-sol-ti-la-sol-la. Re-fa-ti-la-do-ti-la-ti. Mi-sol-do-ti-re-do-ti-do . . . the ever-increasing scales were shaky. One by one, the notes went sharp and then flat. The beat began to fall apart as the music got heavier. Your left ring finger and pinky are too weak—don’t put strength in your wrist! The piano teacher was clapping roughly in front of him. His ring and pinky fingers grew further and further from the score and eventually departed from the music entirely. He worked up a feverish sweat trying to match them to the correct beat. And just when he’d driven all the notes back into the sheet music, he woke up. His wife was looking at him worriedly. Bedbugs had appeared—bedbugs. He stood up with a start, only for his wife to take a deep breath and say, “It’s dust—dust.”
He didn’t make coffee nowadays. As long as parts of the apartment were being consumed by bedbugs, he couldn’t afford to casually dull his sense of smell with the scent of coffee. He sniffed, wondering if it was bedbugs he smelled from somewhere inside the room. When he went in and out of the apartment, he was careful not to let his clothes touch the wall, and every time he went to get the mail, he shook it out like laundry. When the basement was overtaken, the building had no choice but to call a mattress cleaning company. They’d decided to throw away any already-infested mattresses and disinfect the ones that hadn’t been infested yet. The experts entered heroically, carrying all kinds of tools.
“There’s an average of twenty million mites, molds, and bacteria crawling around on your mattress. Dust mites in particular make mattresses their homes and live off of human dandruff and skin cells, excreting harmful waste.”
“What we want to get rid of isn’t mites, it’s bedbugs,” the man said.
The expert nodded as if he knew everything.
“They’re all the same, you know.”
Nevertheless, the expert’s bedbug extermination began. The process finished after several steps that included 150-degree high-pressure steam, UV disinfection, and even the spraying of aromatic scents. A few days later, residents of the apartment realized that the bedbugs had become stronger and more resistant and were not in any way the same as earlier bedbugs or mites. All they’d gotten from inviting the experts into their homes was the realization that there were a lot of pesky little enemies to worry about in addition to bedbugs. That and the fact that rumors of their fight with bedbugs had spread to the whole neighborhood, even to reporters from the local newspaper.
After returning from a WWB meeting, he was surprised to see that he had locked the front door without thinking. His wife asked why he’d had to lock it. He shook his head. He didn’t know why either, but the lock was important.
He spent every night in dutiful pursuit, as if he were the last person left on Earth. Pursuit of the bedbugs, drilling into the center of the world. He used context clues to search for them—word by word, bug by bug. He couldn’t fall asleep. Even when he lay down, he couldn’t sleep. Still awake after hours in bed, he heard the hazy break between night and dawn. The sound of a motorbike stopping, of someone running up the stairs, of the paper boy moving around—they ended the night and called forth daybreak. When he opened the door, he saw something about bedbugs on the front page of that day’s newspaper. He was slowly becoming nocturnal. It had been three months since he’d returned from his trip, so he couldn’t blame it on time zones. The time difference between him and his wife was now so great that at some point, she’d begun to live in a completely different world. When his wife left for work, he went to bed, and when she slept, he awoke.
Whenever his wife came back from work, all she would see of him was the many remnants of his extermination operations, of things he’d installed to block the bedbugs. She was reminded of the existence of bedbugs by the very things he was using to get rid of them. She learned what they looked like from a drawing on a bedbug spray bottle, and she learned about their habits from her husband’s printouts. And looking at the labels of the many medicines he’d bought, she learned what bedbugs liked and disliked. His wife felt the very existence of bedbugs from all his actions to get rid of them. She could especially feel them in her husband’s eyes. The more space that bedbug-related products took up in their house, the more the number of bedbugs seemed to be increasing. Their house was becoming some sort of enormous insect field guide.
The man moved his bed slightly so the ceiling light’s pull chain would dangle directly above his face when he lay down. This was so that whenever he felt like a bedbug was coming near, he could immediately pull the chain and turn the lights on. His wife looked at the chain as if it were a trap. The two locked eyes in the dark. For some reason, he felt like he was going to turn to stone, so he turned away first.
“Have you all heard of vermin filiality?” The senior in B102 asked. Attendance at WWB meetings had become a bit sparse because the people who’d been bitten most weren’t showing up. Everyone understood why their neighbors couldn’t come. They had to kill all the bedbugs that might be laying eggs on their bodies. The senior in B102 had been bitten as well, but he continued to show up regularly to meetings, although he did keep a certain level of distance from his neighbors while talking.
“In the past, filially pious children would go into their parents’ bedroom and briefly sleep there, letting all the flies, fleas, and bedbugs inside feed off them before their parents went to bed. That way, the already sated bedbugs wouldn’t want the parents’ blood. The children were offering themselves up to the bugs as hosts, so to speak.”
He said that this method had been tried successfully in a mountain village a while ago, and some exchange students had exerted great effort to master it as well. The senior’s son had lived in Vancouver for four years and New York for five, so he knew about super-bedbugs better than anyone, he said. If you mixed bedbug bait with a sticky liquid and applied it to your whole body, the bedbugs would smell it and attach themselves to your skin—the host’s skin—unable to come off. Like an ant falling into a honey pot. Within a week, all the bedbugs in the building would stick themselves to the master host. That way, they could be caught alive. All the master host had to do was draw every bug to his or her body, go to some destination far away, and remove them all before returning to the home village.
The senior continued to speak.
“One reason it’s hard to get rid of bedbugs is because we use bait. Bedbugs drink human blood. You’ve got to use a method that combines bait with human bodies, and that’s the master host treatment. The master host is nothing more than a human. You’re pitting all the bedbugs on one person. You might even say they’re human glue.”
“So it’s like putting a bell on a cat. But who’s going to do it?”
After hearing the student in 202 ask this, everyone looked at each other. The man thought about those people he’d occasionally seen on TV who absolutely loved bees, spiders, and scorpions. Their passion was so intense that they’d even let the creatures bite their eyes and tongues. In spite of the pain, they embraced them as soul mates, as if they intended to give up their minds to them too, not just their bodies.
He was silent, then opened his mouth, afraid of being in the spotlight.
“So does the master host die?”
“Ha ha, of course not. You don’t have to burn your house down just to catch the bedbugs. But no matter how sticky the liquid that the bedbugs get caught in, no matter how stuck they are, you’re bound to get bitten some at first. You’ll itch like crazy. You’ll also have some scars. So people with sensitive skin aren’t really fit to be master hosts.”
To save the apartment, they needed a master host willing to give up his or her skin for a certain period of time. Qualifications for the master host necessitated:
1. Someone who did not have excessively sensitive skin or allergies.
2. Someone with a strong immune system and stamina, who was not likely to catch a secondary disease.
3. Someone who was bold and had a sense of duty.
4. Someone who could give up at least a week of his or her time.
Each house was required to nominate one person. People who had to go to work every day were excluded as candidates. This was because once you became the master host, you needed to be away for at least a weeklong incubation period. Going next door and spending the incubation period right there would be a foolish act. They would have to discuss it with the master host, but the further he or she went, the better. The apartment residents decided to split up the costs to cover the master host’s week away. Of course, the host’s family wouldn’t have to pay anything. Plans went forward with the assumption that each of the nine households would pay one million won for a total of nine million won.
The master host had to be brave and intrepid. It would be a problem if he or she screamed at the sight of a single cockroach. Because of this, fearful people were also excluded. The master host would be providing his or her body as housing for the bedbugs, so tough skin was a requirement as well. Sick or weak people were excluded, too. They decided that families with no one to nominate would pay a little bit more. Out of ten households, there were five candidates, and the remaining five households contributed extra money. After a vote, one of the five was selected. It was 302. He didn’t currently have a job, he needed money, and his family lived far away, so he seemed like the most appropriate candidate. Additionally, he had very durable skin. But a few days later, the man in 302 showed up to a WWB meeting and said the following.
“Uh, I got a job. I start the day after tomorrow . . .”
They had to hold another strategy meeting to select a new host. Recently, the bedbugs had spread even further, so they couldn’t delay. No one spoke. They all looked in one direction. At him.
He didn’t have work to go to, he didn’t have a baby he had to look after, his skin was thick enough, he had free time until the end of winter, and, most importantly, he had a strong animosity towards bedbugs. They gave him a night to think on it. They decided that if he refused, they’d look for an outside person to secretly be the host. That night, he thought about the structure of the apartment building.
The bedbugs hadn’t been acting in a completely regular manner, but it did seem like it would be the third floor’s turn next. If he was going to get bitten anyway, he figured in a moment of rash bravery he might as well find the bedbugs before they found him. It was better to actually do something rather than stay inside worrying. Let’s stop the bedbugs before they can lay eggs in my walls and blankets, he thought. A huge financial benefit would follow if he did this. The nine houses other than his were going to give him 11,500,000 won. With that money, he could ride business class and spend a week at a five-star resort. He would even have money left over. Throwing himself out there for a week, making money while relaxing, would be so much better than his old job. He closed his eyes as he lay down. The walls and ceiling and floor all felt like flimsy wax paper. Sounds crept up the thin walls and reached his ears. Who knew if the bedbugs were somehow crawling up those sounds?
The sewing machine began to thrum at daybreak. There was no way the woman in 201 was sewing at this hour, but he could clearly hear the presser foot moving forward. A sound from somewhere facing the wall—the house above, or maybe the house below—glued his whole body to the bed. A long breath shivered through the floor, the walls, the ceiling, uprooting the walls of the building. He could now trace which way the presser foot was going just from the sound of the sewing machine needle turning. He could tell if it was charging precariously, for lack of seam margins, or plodding over tough, thick denim, if it was cotton or a poly blend, or if it was wrapping around a sleeve or neckline. In the darkness, the sewing machine was pushing down the presser foot and its sharp, knife-like edge. The presser foot glued him to his bed, poking him with a sharp needle at several-second intervals. The apartment residents were stuck in the bobbin case, their nerves coming undone thread by thread, and eventually he was folded in half himself and stitched up from one end to the other.
He suddenly opened his eyes. Just now, something—something flat, five millimeters long, something that would plump up into a ball if it drank his blood—had crossed his forearm. He quickly snatched the chain in front of his face. What was left where the bedbug had been was a few strands of his wife’s hair, lying invasively on top of his body. Long, black hairs meandered up and down his forearm. He reached out and tried to remove the tangle. However, as soon as he took hold of the clumpy hairs, he dropped them in disgust. The Rapunzel locks that had once called him to bed now seemed like a bedbug hotspot, a breeding ground. He felt like something was taking place in the hairs spread out on his pillow.
He hopped out of bed like a spring and quickly turned on the computer. He had to know about the connection between bedbugs and hair. It was urgent. Within ten minutes, he’d learned that lying on your pillow with wet hair was not good if you were trying to exterminate bedbugs. His wife didn’t have time to completely dry her hair before going to bed. Her strands of wet hair looked like Medusa’s snakes. A bedbug, or something that wasn’t a bedbug, could be hiding in the crevices. If she hung her hair out the window, the bastards might use it to climb up. Now even things that weren’t bedbugs looked like them. That was the problem.
He lay down again. His wife’s hair was like Samson’s. Maybe her hair had become a source of strength for the bedbugs. He wondered if the only way to get some peace would be to take a pair of scissors and cut her hair the way Delilah had cut Samson’s. The chain connected to the ceiling light dangled in front of his nose, almost tickling him, like a rescue rope, or maybe a rope on the verge of snapping. He decided to grab it.
The day before becoming the master host, he visited a church, a cathedral, and a temple. He wasn’t religious, but some of his neighbors were. Moving busily between houses of worship, he took on their faith traditions as his own. That afternoon, he got a call from a small paper dealing with neighborhood news. If the master host regimen succeeded, they might write a special feature about it, they said. For all they knew, professional master hosts might even start to pop up in the future. Finally the day came. His wife made him seaweed soup. She wasn’t particularly sad or disapproving about him being chosen as the master host. She just said, “Let’s start over in the spring when this debacle is over.” He didn’t know exactly what they’d start over, but he nodded.
The senior came over and handed him a medicine bottle.
“This is a type of pheromone. Males and females both react to it.”
“A pheromone that lures bedbugs?”
“A pheromone that seduces them. It’s sticky, so if they smell it and attach themselves to the host’s body, they won’t be able to get free.”
Several people took a whiff of the liquid. It didn’t have much of a smell. At first it smelled a bit like cilantro, but that wasn’t quite it. The only thing you could call it was scentless. Like wind. It smelled like wind.
He washed his body with bedbug pheromones. He washed his hair with bedbug pheromones, and he brushed his teeth with bedbug pheromones. He gave himself a footbath and washed his face with them. He sprinkled the remainder on his thin mattress. He stuck the bedbugs’ future hiding spots against the front and back of his body, then entered the infested homes. After wrapping himself up in the mattress, he felt like he’d become some sort of master bug. Like a master host.
Residents of the infested homes had taken the bare essentials and gone elsewhere. It wasn’t strictly necessary, but most of the uninfested households had done the same. He evenly applied pheromones to his body in a space that had suddenly become all his own and waited for the bedbugs.
One day passed, then another. In order to attract more bedbugs, he drew the curtains. He rolled around in the sunless interior. Thankfully, there were entertaining shows playing on TV twenty-four hours a day, and his neighbors’ fridges were full of tasty snacks. The fact that he didn’t have to worry anymore about being bitten by bedbugs made him feel especially carefree. Attracting bedbugs certainly was easier than getting rid of them. This was the first time in the past few months that he’d done nothing but relax. He ate and drank without worry. He slept peacefully, roughly scratched the itches covering his body, and felt the satiety of having nothing else to worry about. He’d found the break he had wanted all this time, and it was with bedbugs. He moved only within a range of three to six feet. Every time he ate, he ordered something sumptuous for delivery. He took pictures of his whole body with the DLSR in order to remember the moment. The camera, netbook, and memory card were very useful in this time of bedbugs. His wife, who had been apathetic about the whole ordeal, even sent a text message of support. That night, he thought about his wife. She was staying in her parents’ home near her school.
According to some book he’d read recently, bedbugs have sex more than 200 times per day. The male pierces the female in the heart with sharp, awl-like genitals. They often don’t reach the female’s own genitals, but even so, fertilization is possible. The male’s semen enters somewhere, be it the back or stomach or genitals, and hides in the female’s blood vessels to survive the winter. And in the spring, the sperm that has been hiding throughout her body instinctively begins to look for eggs. He thought about his faraway wife and tried to ejaculate remotely like bedbugs did. His wife wouldn’t know.
He was awakened in the morning not by sunlight or an alarm, but by an itch. His forearm was tainted with three equidistant spots. They looked like the stars of the Big Dipper, rising in the dark sky. Each night, more stars appeared on his arm.
Three-four-three. It was the bedbugs.
Four-three-three. Finally, bedbugs.
Three-three-three. Bedbugs, just as he’d expected.
Two-four-three. Three-four-four. Four-three-two. The bedbugs placed their musical notes on his forearms, his thighs, his calves, even his back, neck, and face, as if it were all sheet music. They began to sew his body like fabric. After about a week, he’d managed to collect quite a few bedbugs onto the mattress. As soon as the master host left the room, so did the bedbugs, intoxicated by the pheromones on his body. The pheromones mixed with the scent of his sweat and blood, making them all the more effective.
The next morning, he set off. In his bag were a week’s worth of vacation spending money in crisp bills, a round-trip plane ticket, and a room reservation voucher. The place he’d chosen was an island in the Pacific. He planned to burn his bedbug-infested mattress, wash his body in a freshwater spa, and spend a weeklong incubation period there before returning home. He took a deep breath while wondering what Pacific coffee tasted like.
No one—not even his wife—said goodbye. He picked up a copy of the local paper in front of the door to the apartment. As he stood at the airport bus stop, the street was unusually quiet. All the windows were closed, and not even a solitary cat traversed the road. The airport bus broke through the silence of the street as it arrived, but the bus driver had to make a call before taking him anywhere. Thankfully, the man was able to sit in a bus seat rather than in the cargo storage area. Several passengers turned their heads as he walked by. He opened up the local newspaper he’d gotten that morning to cover his face. It had been a while since he’d read the paper, and there was no news about bedbugs anywhere. He did see his own name, though. It was an obituary. A different person with the same name, but he still felt peculiar.
The bus departed. This was the end. With a whole building’s worth of bedbugs clinging to his body, he had nowhere to go but up. He felt a sense of relief that there were no more dreadful events to come. Knowing this put his mind at rest. Finally, after all this time, he’d found it. Peace.
Translated by Lizzie Buehler
Illustration by Amy Shin