I always thought that if I ever woke up with bugs crawling all over me, they'd at least be imaginary, the aftermath of copious narcotics or something, payment for a prolonged period of voluntary debauchery. Once, I lived in a big house that was pleasant enough except that it happened to be at the ass end of a planetary insect vortex (or so it seriously seemed), and every morning there were so many spider webs on my porch that, just to get to my car, I had to spin around flicking and flailing like the victim of a poison-gas attack. But even then I never woke up with bugs on me, crawling.
I used to count that as a huge plus in my life, because I know it could be different. I could be living in a dirt pit right now, dug by my Iraqi captors, or on the floor of a Philippine prison, trading butt sex for survival. So I try to be grateful for the little things, because I know that but for the hand I've been dealt by the cosmic card dealer, things could be bad enough that a bed full of bugs would be de rigueur.
But I'm not living in squalor right now, not supposedly anyway. Right now I'm on a Holland America cruise ship, in Alaska of all places. I hadn't meant to come to Alaska, but I promised my brother-in-law Eddie that for his birthday I'd take my sister Cheryl far away. She'd been visiting from Nicaragua, going on four months now, with him and our other sister Kim, which makes me marvel at their sainthood. Cheryl hardly drinks at all anymore, so at least there's that huge improvement, but still there's the other things, the little things, the collection of idiosyncrasies our sister possesses that make hosting her over a long period of time fairly maddening.
For one, she doesn't seem capable of speaking in normal tones, but only in excitable bursts, and after a while it gets a little exhausting to be in the presence of a person who constantly behaves like she just won a Winnebago on the The Price Is Right. There is a lot of pulling and tugging, for one ("Come this way, you gotta SEE this! It's a shop with NOTHING BUT T-SHIRTS!"), and the bleeding eardrums don't help, either.
Then there is the fact that, since she moved to Nicaragua just five years ago, her brain seems to have been sucked clean of any memory of modern convenience. For example, I know she knew there was such a thing as computers before she left to live in Central America, and I even know there are lots and lots of computers actually existing in Granada as we speak, as I've been there and seen them — there's an Internet cafe across the street from the tavern she owns, for chrissakes — but still Cheryl constantly looks at my laptop like it's a shiny object she wants to break open against a rock to see what's inside.
And how do you live on planet Earth and not know how to use an ATM? "It says 'enter your PIN number,'" she'll holler, the panic rising in her voice, "What's a PIN number? What does it mean 'enter'? Is there an opening where you put it?"
I swear, it's the little things like this that will send you sailing over the edge. It will make you so crazy you'll wake up swatting at imaginary insects, because surely if you're on a Holland America cruise in Alaska sleeping under 400-thread-count cotton sheets and you feel things crawling on you, they've got to be imaginary, right? Even if you bought the cruise at an unbelievable bargain price reserved for last-minute travelers.
"What are all these bugs?" Cheryl asked, shaking me awake. It was 4 in the morning and for once she wasn't hollering.
"What the hell are all these bugs!" I screamed. "What the hell are all these bugs!?!?"
I jumped around in our cabin, swatting and flinging myself around like an overmedicated mental patient as my sister collected a virtual nest of the critters and put them in the Ziploc bag she'd used to transport her shampoo and toothpaste at the airport. They were bed bugs, I realized, recalling a news item I'd seen last year on The Today Show.
"Our beds were infested!" I seethed to the guest-relations manager at the front desk, who had transferred us to a cabin that was downgraded from the one we'd previously occupied, which, along with every item we'd brought on board, was now in the process of being fumigated by a team of exterminators. Astoundingly, the guest-relations manager and her boss, it seemed, had so far acted as though a bed-bug infestation was a little thing — feh! No big deal — as though pestilence and fumigation were part of the compliments you could expect from Holland America.
"You can have the cabin you're in," she told us curtly, "and that's all we can do." My sister Cheryl, for once, kept quiet. She simply stepped aside and raised her eyebrows at me expectantly. She is my sister after all, and she might not know a lot about computers and ATMs, but she knows you don't tell me, her little sister, that something is a little thing when it is, in fact, huge.
Hollis Gillespie is founder of the Shocking Real Life Writing Academy. For more information, go to www.hollisgillespie.com.