Having decided to take my adopted son to Paris for a week-long vacation, I went to Airbnb.com and quickly hit upon what seemed a charming, affordable two-bedroom apartment in the Marais, the neighborhood I was hoping for, so I booked it, paying $500 immediately and the other $500 a few weeks later.
When we arrived, we were satisfied enough but it was small and not particularly clean, the furnishings and bedding were tattered and old but, so what, the building was seven hundred years old and there were two huge windows looking onto the sweet little Rue de Chapon. Directly opposite was the very grand, very private, walled Hotel Claude Passart, home of designer Juan Pablo Molyneux, into and from which a steady stream of attractive young women came and went all day long.
We settled in, my young adult son in the smaller room, myself in the larger, better one (we planned to swap rooms halfway through the trip; I had won the coin toss and opted for the bigger room for the first half). The first night passed uneventfully for me, and nearly so for my son, though he spotted a bug and then a bite on his arm, about which he said nothing to me, thinking little of it. The second night, though, he called me in to show me another bug he’d killed: was it a bedbug? Indeed it was. We found an infestation around an electric outlet near the head of the bed. Having snooped around a bit in the bathroom, I recalled having seen a bottle of bug spray, which turned out to be only half full and specifically for use on bedbugs. We sprayed and sprayed, we moved my son’s belongings to the salle de séjour and closed the door after putting the bedding into plastic bags and tying them shut. We washed all our clothes in hot water, dried them, sprayed the bedbug spray into our luggage, and stayed as far as possible from the infested bedroom. I called Airbnb and the owners of the apartment to fill them in and ask what they suggested we do next, since we clearly couldn’t spend a week there. Our preference, naturally, was to relocate immediately into comparable accommodations we assumed Airbnb would provide. That’s when things got interesting.
The owner of the apartment insinuated that we were either lying (and there were no bedbugs at all) or that we had brought the bedbugs from New York into the apartment ourselves. This conversation, by phone, was at 2 AM, the third phone call of the night. She told me that exterminators would come at 9 AM to fumigate the apartment; I asked her not to send them until noon, since we were exhausted, frustrated, and uncomfortable at the prospect of spending the night there. She later claimed to interpret my request as a refusal to allow the exterminator to enter the premises.
Airbnb explained that they “could not” shift us to another Airbnb property for fear of bringing the bedbugs with us. They canceled our reservation and instructed us to book ourselves into a hotel. They began the process of refunding some of the $1000 I’d paid. But Paris hotels were 99% booked. I don’t use a credit card, only a debit card linked, at the time, to the $1500 or so in my checking account. So on that rainy Tuesday night, we refused to leave, since we had no place to go save the nearest park. Then the owner’s husband arrived, an intimidating man who said we had no choice but to get out immediately, appearing to be on the verge of pushing us down the stairs. As we packed our things, I was on the phone with Airbnb (mostly on hold) while the Frenchman stood over us, plainly amused by the two hapless gay Americans faced with a night on the streets in the rain. It was, to say the least, not one of my favorite moments as my son’s otherwise reasonably competent dad.
We took ourselves, at 11 PM, to the nearest cafe for beer and cigarettes. I called the number of the one person I knew in Paris and left a message. Minutes later, he was walking past and, like an angel of mercy, called my name. He was accompanied by two handsome young men, “couchsurfers” as it happened. Competent dad that I once again strove to prove myself, I improvised a version of our plight that substituted a gas leak for the bedbugs and we were invited not to spend the night being rained on in a park but in the warmth and safety of his book and art-filled apartment nearby. Incidentally, just before midnight, Airbnb sent a message saying they had found a hotel room for us... in Chartres, 57 miles from Paris. That was the best they could do, they said. I told them that rather than attempt a 57-mile journey to Chartres, we planned to walk the streets of Paris and sleep, if necessary, on park benches in the rain. I mentioned that I was a journalist, (a stretch but not quite a lie).
The next day I booked a hotel room near République, and then an apartment between Clichy and Montmartre that proved to be much nicer than the comparatively dumpy place in the Marais. I nearly ran out of money, the bulk of the Airbnb refunds arrived into my account after we returned home; the total refund amounted to just under $900. So we paid about $100 for the luxury of staying in a bedbug-infested apartment and for being forced to leave late at night before we were able to arrange another place.
However... when my French friend had been strolling past that ordinary cafe where my son and I had sat under an umbrella pondering our misfortune, he would surely have walked on past except that the topic of conversation among the three men—our French friend, a Swiss, and an Italian—at that moment had happened to be their respective favorite types of men. As they approached the cafe, the Italian - young, handsome, sexy - nodded discreetly to indicate my son and said to his friends, “Like him, that’s my type”. His companions had glanced at my son and then my friend, thank God, had also glanced at me, had stopped walking, had said my name, and had rescued us forthwith.
And the Italian, making sweet love to my son in my friend’s guest room an hour later, (I happily slept on the floor under the piano in the salon, alone), whispered into my son’s ear words everyone should live to hear whispered into his ear by an Italian in Paris at least once before he’s thirty: “I have not the best words for saying you are beautiful.” My son shut him up, he said, with another, though hardly the last, kiss that awful, wonderful summer night in Paris.
Rick Whitaker is author of Assuming the Position: A Memoir of Hustling, The First Time I Met Frank O'Hara: Reading Gay American Writers, and An Honest Ghost, a novel consisting entirely of sentences taken from (more than 500) other books. He recently introduced author Edmund White, who was receiving the Lambda Literary Foundation’s Visionary (lifetime achievement) Award at New York University using only sentences from Edmund White’s own books. He is Concerts and Theater Director at Columbia University’s Italian Academy for Advanced Studies in America. He served for ten years on the Board of Directors of Family Focus Adoption Services.