In December, Florida became the first state to offer the COVID-19 vaccine to those 65 and older. More than four million fit into that age demographic, so when our county’s vaccine portal opened, the appointments, booked though Eventbrite, vanished within 15 minutes. My sister and I signed up for text alerts that would notify us when the next block became available. A week later, a notification woke my sister at dawn, and she booked a “ticket” for the “event” to be held at a nearby mall.
On a blue, brisk morning, my husband and I drove my mother to her appointment. She did not want to go alone in case she had a bad reaction to the vaccine. My mother is 77, and for the last year, we have been so worried about her health; to be able to start the inoculation process felt nothing short of miraculous. When we pulled into the parking lot, I felt flooded with recognition.
“Oh, my God,” I said. “It’s the mall.”
“It’s definitely a mall,” my husband replied.
“Mom,” I turned to my mother in the backseat, her face covered by a pink mask, her hair styled into a blonde arch for the occasion, “don’t you remember?”
We’d arrived at the very mall I once roamed as a teenager. The mall where I got my ears pierced, where I smeared free samples of glitter body lotion all over my arms, and where I flirted with the guy with the lip ring who worked at Auntie Anne’s. By then, I’d been back in Florida long enough to have grown used to turning a corner and knocking heads with my younger self: hair bleached, heart lonely, fingertips reeking of cigarettes, still a long ways from becoming a person who could become a writer. I’d nearly forgotten about her until I sort of moved home, though it didn’t take long for me to start to imagine that she’d been waiting for me all this time, like a rattlesnake curled up inside the heel of a boot.
I remembered how this mall had felt like a world with its own possibilities and laws.
When people ask where I live these days, I’m not sure how to answer. I was raised in Central Florida but moved away at 22, nearly 15 years ago. Last winter, my husband and I were in Austin for the school semester, staying in a rental with a hard move-out date; in March, we drove to Florida, where we could quarantine with family for as long as we needed. We are still here, working remotely, a situation that will not last forever and that I am surprised to not be more anxious to leave.
Inside the mall, everything was just as I remembered, from the limp palm trees huddled around the entrance to the horseshoe-shaped food court. This perhaps explained why the mall was now half abandoned; it had not kept up with the times. Vacant storefronts had been repurposed for vaccine administration. A red velvet armchair draped in fake pearls sat in one of the display windows.
I watched with my husband as my mother disappeared behind a wall of white privacy screens. The whole process was supposed to take about 30 minutes. My husband—a New Englander who started referring to Florida as a “lawless free-for-all” after the party bikes resumed in our town, carting unmasked revelers from one teeming bar to another—peered nervously down the dull walkways. But it was 10 in the morning, and the mall was nearly empty.
The food court was closed, save for the place selling pastel-colored smoothies. The sad aquarium, a lone fish swimming in desolate circles, was still there, as was the photo booth; I remembered disappearing behind the black curtain, baring my teeth for the camera. I remembered how this mall had felt like a world with its own possibilities and laws.
“I’m pretty sure Hot Topic used to be right there,” I said, pointing to a vacant store.
In the windows, I could see our masked reflections looking back. I passed a teenage girl sitting alone on the floor, leaning against an empty storefront and texting furiously. I wondered what my younger self would say if she could see me back here, wandering the mall of her youth with a husband no less (my younger self was strongly opposed to marriage) and no immediate plans to leave.
She’d been waiting for me all this time, like a rattlesnake curled up inside the heel of a boot
I am still trying to unknot what it means to come home and what it means to want to stay—or at least to not want to bolt at the first available opportunity. I used to dream of escaping the swamp and to fear being sent back. But now I was back, and I did not feel trapped. I felt, perhaps for the first time ever, at home. Had the place changed? Had I? Was this a sign of healing? Inertia? Forgiveness?
The Dillard’s was still intact, though the entrance blocked by a metal grate. The only open business was, bizarrely, a suitcase store, lights bright and elevator music echoing.
“This definitely qualifies as a pandemic date,” my husband said, taking my hand, a nod to how infrequently we’d gone out in the last year.
I am still trying to unknot what it means to come home and what it means to want to stay
Back at the vaccination site, we stood close to the glass and peered into the gaps between the privacy screens until we found my mother; the height of her hair made her easy to spot. We could glimpse her bare arm, extended in offering to a person we could not see. A few minutes later, she moved on and someone else took her place. It felt strange, and powerful, to remember that we were witnessing history.
“Hold still,” we said when she emerged.
She gave us a double thumbs-up as we took her photo.
Our vaccination day story is, of course, just one in a vast and complicated ecosystem. At the time of my mother’s first appointment, the state had no unified process for securing appointments. Our county is using Eventbrite and a mall. Others are using other different online platforms, convention centers, hospitals. What is clear is that these systems favor those who can monitor social media and make appointments online—seniors without smartphones, iPads, or tech-savvy relatives are more likely to be excluded. The Miami Herald recently reported that, within Miami-Dade County, the monied Fisher Island has one of the highest vaccination rates, while Opa-locka, where about 40 percent of its residents are impacted by poverty, is among the lowest. History is being made with this vaccine, and history is also being repeated.
At the mall, I looked down at the photo of my mother and thought about all the things it simultaneously documented: the past, the present, the unknowable future. I wanted to hug my mother, but I did not. By now, that gesture feels like it belongs to a different, lost world. Instead, we all sanitized our hands by the exit, and then together we stepped out into the obliterating sunshine.
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