Remember spring 2021? COVID cases dropped as the days lengthened, every balmy, breezy morning bringing happy news of America’s three-vaccine rollout. By the end of the season, vaccination wasn’t just for hospital workers and overweight asthmatics. As temperatures rose into the 70s in the Northeast, where I live, we heralded the arrival of ‘hot vax summer’: the triumphant return of fun to the 20- and 30-somethings whose social lives had been shut down tighter than last year’s Democratic National Convention. After a long, dark winter, hope sprang.
Now it looks like hot vax summer didn’t quite pan out for many in our sex-recessed country. Dating apps and sex therapists alike report that singles are still too scarred by the pandemic to pursue the kind of wild summer flings encouraged by cheeky ad campaigns. The Delta variant, rising breakthrough cases and reversed CDC guidance have dimmed the light at the end of the tunnel for many Americans. Meanwhile, businesses are finally allowed to reopen, only to find themselves faced with staffing shortages — even though many bars and restaurants still aren’t open to full capacity. Despite the much-anticipated ‘shot girl summer’, life hasn’t snapped back to normal.
But while we continue to wait for the new Roaring Twenties, Americans have resumed some of their less-exciting activities. Sure, casual sex seems fun, but have you tried flying commercial? On June 11, the TSA reported putting two million people through its checkpoints for the first time since the pandemic began, and boy, are they not at all prepared for the influx. When I flew out of JFK recently, I waited in an endless security line behind a couple of Zoomers debating the proper pronunciation of ‘Avril Lavigne’ as a beleaguered TSA official begged us to sign up for the pre-check app so we could shorten the queue. The perfect lack of response from the crowd struck me as a little parable about eroded social trust: we all preferred to wait half an hour rather than believe the empty promises of some janky government app. Fair enough.
On the other end of my flight out of JFK is a happy occasion: the wedding of a dear friend. I’d bet that many of my companions in the security line could say the same. Thousands of nuptial celebrations, postponed in the past 18 months, are now being rescheduled in a July to October sweet spot, when brides and grooms can feel reasonably confident that their guests will have had the opportunity to be vaccinated, but they can also plan outdoor receptions, just in case. That means many of my peers and I are spending our ‘shot girl summers’ crisscrossing the country, waiting in security lines at various airports and diligently masking — regardless, as the incessant announcements remind us, of our vaccination status. Not exactly the stuff of a Megan Thee Stallion music video.
I’ll say this for hot vax summer, though: it is, indeed, very hot. I write from the Pacific Northwest, where record high temperatures are sweeping the region for the second time this year. I live an hour north of DC and have been brutalized by heat every summer of my life. Still, I was not prepared for this Northwestern heatwave. My parents warned me extensively about antifa, CHOP, and CHAZ, oblivious to the real danger: the sun.
And that’s how I found myself at the true nadir of my hot vax summer: vomiting from dehydration in the restroom of the un-air-conditioned Union Station in Portland, as my best friend and I waited for a train that had been delayed indefinitely due to heat. We’d been blithely hiking, sightseeing, drinking Aperol spritzes, and assuring ourselves that PNW weather couldn’t compete with our muggy mid-Atlantic summers, until we realized that not only are Portland establishments not uniformly outfitted with AC, many aren’t welcoming people indoors, anyway — the Delta variant!
So I understand why my fellow patrons of the Union Station ladies room didn’t bat an eye at my pathetic condition. They must see this sort of thing a lot. Unmasked Mennonite children from rural Oregon, bundled up in long sleeves and bonnets, smiled at me coolly by the sink, perhaps having been coached on extending Christian kindness to the city’s large homeless population, which by now I looked like a member of. ‘I recommend water,’ helpfully texted my boyfriend, an ER doctor. ‘If you were here, I’d prescribe you nausea meds,’ he added, which may qualify as something like a sext, under the circumstances: finally, my hot vax summer arrives.
The truth is, I overextended myself a bit this summer. I acclimated fairly happily to a quiet life of family, Zoom catch-ups, and early bedtimes during the shutdowns, and my frenzy of stimulus-sponsored, Moderna-enabled travel has shocked me — and not just with heatstroke. Perhaps my generation have been kidding ourselves, imagining we can expand our small, quiet pandemic lives as easily as inflating a balloon. Are we maladapted to post-vax life? Or, as hundreds of party-going gays in Provincetown learned the hard way, is post-vax life just letting us down?
It’s another beautiful day in the Pacific Northwest, sort of. The weather forecast has changed from ‘sunny’ to ‘smoke’, as toxic haze from inland wildfires drifts toward the coast. It’s hard not to be discouraged by the macro dysfunctions swirling around my visit: COVID and climate change; poverty and displacement; overtaxed, understaffed airline and restaurant workers having really bad days, every day. The optimism of the spring has mellowed into late summer disenchantment. But, of course, there’s the wedding this weekend to look forward to: a gathering of old friends and a celebration of new beginnings. I may skip the Champagne and toast the bride and groom with Gatorade this time, though: the heat hasn’t broken yet.
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s September 2021 World edition.