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Tough Love and Bugs

Thirteen years after my husband Mark and I honeymooned in Ecuador, we returned to the country with our two pre-teens, this time volunteering at a school called The Working Boys Center. We were housed in a concrete dorm room with beds that sagged from busted springs and clean, but threadbare, blankets. At night, with our son and daughter asleep in their bunks, I huddled into Mark on our pushed-together twin beds and listened to the sounds and sirens of Quito. I recalled our previous stay in a hotel across the city, back when our marriage was weeks old.

As I draped my arm over Mark, he pulled it across his chest, the way you might tighten a loose scarf. His voice dropped to a whisper, rare for someone with no volume control. "I have something to tell you," he said. "I heard two of the long-term volunteers talking about bedbugs. In this building."

I pulled away from Mark and threw off the covers. "Bedbugs? Are you kidding me?"

"I wish."

I pictured the rusty holes in the mattress that I had effectively dismissed when we arrived at the school three days earlier. I willed my body to float above the bed, out of bug reach. "What are we supposed to do?" I asked.

"I think we need to be careful."

"Oh, okay," I said. "Let's not move around too much, and maybe they won't find us."

"That's not what I meant."

As moments passed, I spun through time, unwinding the journey of years between that trip and this one. Our son born in our second year of marriage, and his severe eczema that kept us in a chronic state of exhaustion.

I surveyed the room, eerily bright with the light pollution of Quito sifting through tattered window shades, illuminating the tile floor littered with the stuff of four travelers. Uno cards. Hiking boots. Guidebooks. The good camera. I remembered hearing that bed bugs can insidiously work their way into anything, even electronics, even books. I slapped my hands over my face and groaned. "You had to tell me this when we were in bed with nowhere else to go?"

"I forgot about it earlier."

"Who forgets that they might have bed bugs?"

"I'm sorry!"

"Shhh!" I said, pointing at the bunks.

I flopped down and rolled away so we were fully on our separate beds, each likely containing multiple armies of bugs. We stayed like that, stiff and not speaking, so different from the honeymooners who, thirteen years earlier, had spent nights trying to be quiet in a thin-walled hotel room for another reason.

As moments passed, I spun through time, unwinding the journey of years between that trip and this one. Our son born in our second year of marriage, and his severe eczema that kept us in a chronic state of exhaustion. The sweet stolen moments when our boy would finally nod off and, sometimes, the brutal arguments ignited in the crucible of sleep deprivation. There had been other illnesses and deep loss, but then the birth of our daughter and joy, so much joy rolled into the hard.

Here was the next hard thing, and a pretty joyless one, as far as I could tell.

"We weren't supposed to get bed bugs here," I said. "Of all things." The week before we had toured the Amazon basin on the lookout for Anacondas. We swam in Piranha Lake and trekked through the ink-black rain forest stopping to looking at tarantulas. "If anything, we were supposed to get an intestinal bug, or chased by a jaguar."

After a while, Mark drew a breath. "First of all, we didn't get this yet. And even if we do, we'll get through it," he said.

"How?" I said. "They're practically impossible to get rid of."

Mark sounded calm. "The way we get through everything."

I turned to look at my husband, so much more familiar now than when we honeymooned here together. Still classically handsome, but also older, greyer, gentler, wiser, infested. Thirteen years had passed like sand through a loosened fist. Still, we had a long way to go until death did we part.

"We now have a choice," he said in his loud, assured way. "We can ruin a great trip or we can deal."

Had this happened on our honeymoon, I'm not sure I would have believed we could deal. Back then I also didn't yet know how marriages worked. I didn't know we would spend the rest of our lives taking turns being the strong one.

Mark held me through the eczema years. With financial worries, I still talk him down. He keeps me calm through injuries, while I stay steady during house disasters. And here he was not freaking out over our hypothetical case of bed bugs. Which meant what? That I, too, would eventually be okay. That we'd get through this, too. Together.

Mark's hand landed on my shoulder and guided me back down onto my maybe buggy bed. "If we have them, we have them," he said. "Are you going to lose a night of sleep over something you can't control?"

"Actually, yes."

I stayed awake late into the night imagining death by 1000 bites. In addition to bed bugs, I also thought about how we ballast that ship of marriage, the things that keep us from keeling over. Years. Children. Love, the real kind, the tough kind, nothing even a bed bug can bite its way through.

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