I cross the pot-holed parking lot wearing my N95 mask on a sunny suburban afternoon. My destination: a popup vaccination clinic at a shopping mall. The online confirmation instructions: Enter through the cinema doors, next to the chain restaurant sign. A “By Appointment Only” banner rustles in the breeze. A few people exit beneath it, most of them wearing masks. 

The doors whoosh open, and the quiet hallway fades into view. “This Way” more signage points, and I follow the dingy trail of arrows stuck to the floor. I pass shuttered stores as a thin stream of people flows through the hall. My mask gets heavy on my face, and I take deep breaths behind it. Then, I see her.

Like a Ghost of Retail Therapy Past, her poster-size image hangs on a shadowed panel by the escalator. The easy flow and lovely colors of her tapestried jacket sidetrack me, with her white tank top tucked casually into her capris atop coordinating slides. Her thick dark hair hangs in a loose braid on her shoulder, the right touch of whisps framing her glowing face. She’s beautiful.

I stop to admire her, in my sneakers and bootcut jeans under an oversized Earthday t-shirt and thrift store jacket, my overgrown hair pulled into a tight ponytail. My functional mommy style lingers on my body even now, further ingrained by months at home in business casual from the waist up. You should look so cute, chides my inner critic. There are barefoot children running towards a brick wall behind her, and she’s walking the other way?! While I may not be so stylish, at least I kept track of my kids at the mall. Take that, voice in my head.

The arrows draw me down the corridor to a food-court-turned-pickle-ball-courts atrium. Wait – there used to be a merry-go-round here. Now the Ghost of Christmas Past haunts – I’m waving to my giggling daughters swirling by, waiting for our turn to see Santa. This nexus of a once-bustling late century Main Street is quiet. One wing is completely closed off by a floor-to-ceiling white wall. Signs directing shoppers to the long-closed anchor stores still hang from the rafters, pointing to a dead end. I pick up the trail and spot the clinic entrance ahead, the merry-go-round memory caught in my throat. 

The two storefronts-turned-clinic are cavernous holding spaces, with rows of chairs for registration at one end and the post-jab waiting area at the other. In between, I land at a small station under a “Fitting Rooms” sign. A kind nurse asks a few questions then, chatting away, gives me the vaccine. It’s the gentlest shot I’ve ever had. She credits “the smallest needle they make.” After waiting 15 minutes, I say “Thanks” to a guard as I return to the mall. I’m not sure she heard me, so I try to make eye contact over my mask. This gesture somehow marks the occasion.

The path to the parking lot passes a few open shops, an eclectic mix of antiques and collectibles, used books, and customer-less shoe stores. My own footsteps echo off the glass walls. The jumbled directional signs don’t distract me now. 

The lovely lady with the running children smiles again from across the mall. Maybe next pandemic I’ll have a personal stylist. She beckons from a past that has been swallowed up by the one-click ease of quarantine shopping. This time I see the little one on her left’s glance to the side: Is it the merry-go-round she sees? Longing washes over me, again – the past remembered, today, as an easier time.

My jacket feels too warm and tight. The glare from the glass mall entrance silhouettes the trickle of people coming and going. The doors whoosh open and the banner flaps. I join the flow, pull off the jacket and mask, and walk into the cool breeze.