Much Ado About Fleas
Of course it wasn't long after I set down my bags that I noticed Edward frantically gnawing at his tail, and with a sinking feeling did a quick fur check. This was Edward's first flea encounter, but unfortunately I can't say the same for myself. I don't think I've ever mentioned the summer I spent in San Diego with a crazy (and I don't use this epithet in a fond way) old artist, an angry guitarist, and two dogs who were engaged to be married.
It all began my first year in Des Moines. Summer vacation was fast approaching, everyone was leaving, and the threat of macroeconomics and calculus (two dreaded but required courses) was hanging right over my head. I'll be honest and admit that thoughts of the abandoned college campus and an entire summer of just me, the corn fields, and lonely trips to Super Walmart filled me with dread. So I panicked and, without thinking it through, found myself enrolled in summer school in San Diego. My faulty logic went something like, I want to do something independent and I want to be near the ocean (which I kinda like more than corn fields), but I don't have much money, and I can't go too far, so I'll go to San Diego. I booked myself a cheap air ticket, reserved a room at a motel with a freakishly low weekly rate, and off I went. Aside from knowing nothing about San Diego, the utter badness of my plan was compounded by the decision to find a place to rent after I got there. Meanwhile, I had my nice little motel, which naturally turned out to be an adventure in itself: an hour-and-a-half-long bus ride to college, ankle-deep furry orange carpeting, a perpetual wet-dog smell, windows without locks (there was a metal bar instead to keep the glass from sliding), and a bulletproof cage for a front desk, within which there only sometimes sat a human being. The day after I arrived, I also came down with the flu. I had a week to find myself a room for the summer.
I realize I'm spending an awful lot of time building up the background of this story, but I wanted you to understand why I made the stupendously stupid decision that I did. After a punishing week of combing newspaper ads and hunting down all sorts of dingy, inappropriate, and overpriced places while half delirious with a fever, I found an ad for a short-term rental that was in walking distance of the college. I called to inquire, was directed to a cute little one-story house, and was met at the door by what looked like a plump Zsa Zsa Gabor on a hippy streak, complete with platinum hair and big, twinkling eyes. Everyone, meet the crazy old artist Isabelle, who was renting out two rooms in her home. Unfortunately, my normally sharp people instincts were blurred by a combination of desperation, dizzying relief at the convenience and affordability of the place, and a weakened immune system. Also, Valerie really played up the breathy, girlish voice and innocent old grandma in a muumuu routine on our first meeting. Because my sinuses were totally clogged up, I also missed the smell of cigarettes. I'm not a fan of that smell. Turns out, Valerie was a chain smoker, but kindly managed to control the impulse during our first meeting.
So before the week was out, I gratefully moved in, and was perfunctorily introduced to the other housemate, a seemingly quiet 37-year-old guy with long, dark hair and every inch of wall space in his room covered with really large posters of naked women (Valerie let me take a peek one afternoon while he was out of the house). Everyone, meet the angry rock band guitarist Brad, who would come home drunk all the time and bellow furious obscenities at Isabelle (to be fair to Brad, Isabelle often made me feel furious and insane as well; she had a special way about her). Thankfully, Brad pretty much ignored me, although he could be fairly charming when he wasn't drunk and raging.
While we're at it, let's bring out the rest of the family: two little Shih-Tzus whose names I can't remember but were inspired by a pair of ill-fated lovers in a Welsh legend, I think. Let's call them Bitsy and Bob, the unwitting cause of my primary hell that summer. Soon after I arrived, Isabelle shared with me her plans for Bitsy and Bob's wedding, complete with tux, white gown, organ music, and a ceremony. Extreme, I suppose, but not crazy. I only really started thinking she was crazy when she brought home some guy she'd met in a bar and told me he was "a gift" for me. Gee, thanks. But no, really. I'm afraid I may have been a bit rude, the gift took offense, and left. Isabelle was miffed, but thank god I didn't get any more presents after that. I think she decided to keep them for herself, which was okay by me.
What drove me nuts though was Isabelle's refusal to treat Bitsy and Bob's flea problem, claiming the medicines were toxic. One day, while poor Bitsy was scratching like the Furies, I examined her and instantly found what looked like fast-moving black rivulets running all over her body. They were actually long lines of fleas. There were so many of them.
Eventually, I would wait until Isabelle went out, and then promptly attack the poor dogs with flea spray and comb, chasing them around the house, and even (gently) throwing Bitsy in the pond a couple of times. I'm afraid I didn't know much about fleas back then and thought that that would be enough. What I didn't realize was that every day thousands of eggs were falling off the dogs and hatching all over the carpet. It was a hopeless battle.
It wasn't long before the fleas found a nice new source of food however: me. They'd moved from the dogs to the carpets to my bed, and there was no escaping them each night. Isabelle refused to do anything--it was easy for her to ignore the problem as, she admitted with a throaty laugh, the fleas probably avoided her because she was constantly smoking, haha. There were only a few weeks left before summer school ended. So I decided to endure. But by the time I left, my back looked like the American flag, full of red stars and scratched-on stripes. Not a pretty sight.
So. You can imagine I might have freaked out just a tad at the discovery of little black dots spunkily racing through Edward's fur. We hustled over to the vet, who confirmed the problem and pulled out a colorful poster, illustrating the four stages of a flea's life. There was also a nice photograph of a grapefuit-sized swollen lymph node in someone's armpit--the plague, you know. It actually can be transferred through fleas. Isn't that interesting? And here you thought that the plague had died out in the Middle Ages. Nope.
The vet promptly laughed when I asked him if I should wash all the rugs. If this had been a movie, I could imagine him abruptly stopping in mid-chuckle and telling me with burning lunatic eyes, "Burn them. Burn them all!" Instead, he ordered me to throw away whatever I could and to vacuum daily. That's it? And the rest? The sofa? The curtains? I got another chuckle and a doubtful, "Good luck."
Well, luckily, I think we caught the problem in time. I vigorously threw myself into the task of extermination, tossing out what I could, fumigating every inch of the apartment with flea-killing sprays. And the vacuuming. Never again in history will I be seen so frequently with vacuum in hand. Unless the fleas come back.