What are these tiny black bugs doing in my hair and why can't I get rid of them?

Published September 7, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Thirty years ago, my cousin Dorothy brought home a case of head lice from a trip to Ireland and generously shared it with her second-grade class at one of the toniest private schools in Manhattan. The moms and dads of Dalton -- into whose hallowed halls no child had ever introduced lice -- did not respond with a sense of humor. As those tiny, six-legged pests ran amuck through the school, the parents turned nasty, and it's hardly surprising that both Dorothy and her sister Lynn soon left Dalton for other schools (with, presumably, more tolerant parents).

It seems a little baffling, now, doesn't it? These days, after all, lice are a tedious fact of our lives as parents, like the chicken pox or a stomach bug making the rounds at day care. We greet news of a new outbreak with groans and curses, but certainly without recriminations, because our kids are all going to get it, right? From school or camp, from the headrest on those culturally enriching flights to Paris, from the children of famous writers or captains of industry. The package of Nix sits in our medicine cabinets, right between the children's Tylenol and the Ipecac, just waiting for its moment. I was absolutely prepared for it to happen to me, but when it did, it happened in a way that knocked me flat. Here, then, is my pleasant little story about lice -- with a twist.

My daughter was young, nearly a year old, and on an utterly normal suburban summer day, I was driving her home from an exercise class at my local YWCA when I felt the first tickle on my scalp. The dreaded word popped into my head: lice.

When I got home, I put my daughter in her crib and went to the bathroom. Parting my hair, I saw a tiny black dot moving over my scalp, then another. Then I felt a tickle on my arm. Another one on my leg. These lice were colonizing my limbs. I hurriedly checked my daughter, but she seemed to be fine. I considered this something of a victory.

Because it was me, not her, I thought I'd better get a doctor's opinion. Sitting in her examining room a few hours later, I pointed out a tiny black dot moving leisurely across a patch of exposed knee through a hole in my jeans. She snatched it between glass slides and went into the next room, where I was soon invited to examine an absolutely vicious looking insect through a microscope. My doctor laughed. I had already been in that summer for a nasty reaction to a bee sting and for a Lyme tick bite.

"You don't need a doctor," my doctor said. "You need an entomologist." I was sent home with instructions to follow the instructions on the Nix package, and I stoically did so: shampoo, then an hour of combing my long black hair on the back porch. I felt rather smug that I had handled things so well. By late that afternoon, I was on the phone to my father, bragging about how responsible I'd been, how competent, how efficient. My first case of lice, dispatched with alacrity! I'd certainly showed those little bastards who was boss.

I noticed, as I said this, a tiny black dot crawling up my leg. Impossible. It was impossible. I'd followed the directions exactly. I'd combed and combed. I'd stood in a scalding shower making sure every millimeter of skin was washed clear of little black dots. How could this be happening?

I called my doctor. Sometimes you need to do it twice, she said.

I did it twice. I scrubbed and combed, and for the next three days, those little black dots continued to crawl over my scalp and body. I ceased to live a normal life. I sat for hours, obsessively examining my skin, ignoring my daughter except to ascertain yet again that she was little-black-dot-free. I endured carcinogenic levels of Nix as I did the treatment a third time. They wouldn't stop crawling over my body. I began to fixate on the word "infested." I was infested. But what was the source of the infestation? Was it inside me? Were they crawling out of an orifice? Or some heretofore undetected interruption in my skin? I did not know how, or if, I could ever enter the world again. How could I go out in public with insects crawling all over me, as if I were a piece of food left rotting in the sun? Was this the first stage of a process of complete decay? Ashes to ashes? Dust to dust?

Then, gradually, my obsession began to clear. An hour passed without a new, crawling black dot. Then two hours. Then 12. I began to brighten. I didn't know why it was ending, but it did seem to be ending. I thought I might try to drive into town and get some groceries. I took my daughter out to the car and put her in her car seat. I was about to close the door when I noticed a tiny black dot crawling over her plump little leg.
Transfixed and horrified, I did, nonetheless, begin to have a glimmer of an idea. I pressed down with my hand on the back seat. Black dots swarmed over my fingers.

I wasn't infested. My car was infested.

And so the mystery unraveled itself. It began with the bird's nest, lodged on an overhead beam in the garage. We were too kindhearted, of course, to inconvenience the birds and their progeny, who were so cute if you ignored the bathroom they made of the roof of the car. Rather less obvious were the little mites they shook from their feathers, sprinkling them over the car's top.

If you looked closely, you could see an orderly line of them from the roof to the right rear window, where they disappeared through a crack into the car's interior. The upholstery was an insect convention, and we were the equivalent of raw chicken.

I called my husband. He came home with two flea bombs, tossed one in the back seat and the other in the trunk, and for a delightful, sadistic hour I watched every insect in that car die what I fervently hoped was a painful death. I did not park my car inside the garage until the birds had left for alternate accommodations. And so ends my strange but true story of lice.

Except, of course, that they weren't lice at all. But if you've ever had lice in your family you knew that already -- you knew as soon as I said I could see those little black dots on my scalp, because actual lice are too small to be seen (though their eggs, or nits, are not). And you knew when I found them all over my body, because lice tend to stick to the hairy parts. What they specifically were, those nasty, horrible, crawling things, I've never actually found out. My doctor, in her wisdom, was speaking the truth: I did need an entomologist.

And believe it or not, in the six years since, no one in my family yet has been afflicted with real lice, an effect I attribute (perhaps wrongly) to one of my greater failings as a mom: a certain lack of scrupulousness in the hair-washing department. My daughter is lucky if hers gets done once a week, and it's well known that lice prefer clean hair. (One close friend, who is very punctilious on this issue and washes her daughter's hair every night, had a whopper of an infestation last year.)

Despite this inadvertent precaution and the fact that the lice themselves are reportedly becoming more resistant to our treatments with every passing hour, I still keep my package of Nix on hand, preparing for the inevitable. When they come -- and they will come -- I will beat the crap out of them with every weapon in the arsenal.

And what of my two cousins, routed out of Dalton for unleashing lice on the fair heads of New York's junior elite? One became an Emmy-winning documentary filmmaker and the other's a pediatrician at one of the best children's hospitals in the country. So there!

By Jean Hanff Korelitz

Jean Hanff Korelitz is the author of the novel "The Sabbathday River," published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

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