The last good day

An Atlanta writer recalls the last Saturday before the coronavirus outbreak shut down the city

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Piedmont Park Atlanta
Piedmont Park at sunset

Photograph by Marilyn Nieves / iStock / Getty Images Plus

It was just a month ago, but it feels more like a long-lost scene, lived out by a version of myself I no longer know. It was a sunny Saturday in mid-March, one I have come to think of in the weeks since as “the last good day.”

Like many other weekend mornings for me, it started with a workout at Vesta Movement, a kickboxing gym on Ponce. The large garage doors were open and the smell of fresh grass trimmings from the man weed-whacking across the street wafted in. At the end of class, as we cooled down, I laid on the mat and looked up at my reflection in the window pane.

I remember feeling a little bit invincible. That emotion is what has kept me coming back to this gym for years: sometimes the classes crush me; sometimes I crush them. Either outcome leaves me wanting more. This day, I felt victorious. The “attendance” section on Vesta’s app shows it was the last time I was there.

After, I stopped at the tailor in the plaza next door. The owner was wearing rubber gloves and wiping down the handle and glass door with disinfectant spray. I’ve gotten in the habit of bringing things here that don’t really need to be altered, like the black slip dress I was picking up, because I adore the couple who run the place. I don’t know their names, but they call every piece of clothing “beautiful,” even my Gap pants and Old Navy dresses. They only accept cash and don’t call when your garment is ready—just come back on the date on the slip. On my way out the door, which the owner opened for me using her gloved hand, I told them to please stay safe. I’d be back.

That night, after an afternoon spent in the park getting my first sunburn of the season, I put on the black slip dress, red suede heels, and hoop earrings. I curled my hair and put on lipstick—actions that would come to feel foreign in the weeks ahead. I popped cheap champagne and danced in my apartment. I texted Heather, my favorite bartender who has become a friend, to confirm Apres Diem was open. The tapas bar has become my port in the storm since moving to Midtown, the place where I often gossip with Heather at the bar, catch up with friends, and make it my mission to actually read 10,000-word New Yorker pieces all the way through. I headed out into the warm spring evening, the eve of my birthday.

Perhaps I should have already known better, but this didn’t yet feel reckless. My gym was still open, Trader Joe’s wasn’t yet limiting the store’s capacity, and few restaurants had closed their doors.

At Apres Diem, I ordered a cheese plate, mussels, and glasses of champagne, toasting to being another year older with a small group of friends. One pal presented me a small four-pack of toilet paper wrapped in a bow, something she managed to track down at a neighborhood market. Another gifted me with a candle I have burned most days since. Another gave me a board game that’s been put to good use. Although not entirely intentional, it was a practical set of gifts to receive before a pandemic.

We paid our checks and piled into a friend’s car to go for a nightcap. My only request was somewhere with a mean Old Fashioned. As we drove through Midtown, I plugged an aux cord into my phone and queued up Garth Brooks’s “Friends in Low Places,” indulging my love for ‘90s country. No one questioned the choice.

We rolled down the windows and let the March air kiss our faces as we belted out the chorus in off-key unison. I laughed deliriously and wondered how I had gotten so lucky.

We ordered a round of bourbon, then another, then one more.

When I woke up the next morning, it was the Ides of March and my 26th birthday. The lock screen on my phone showed a mix of birthday wishes and push alerts about the quickly changing world. The mood was much more somber than the day before.

I still went to get birthday breakfast tacos as I’d planned, but things were different. I looked skeptically at the door handle instead of just grabbing it, and the chatter on the patio was exclusively hushed conversations about the coronavirus. There was a tension and an uneasiness hanging over us all. The winds had shifted, and it felt intrinsically obvious to me that the fun was over—at least for now. I went to Publix to gather some last-minute supplies, then retreated home. That night, the mayor banned gatherings of more than 250 people. The next day, she amended it to 50 people. By Thursday, in-person dining was no longer allowed.

The next time I heard from Heather was in a group message with other Apres Diem regulars, asking us to please consider donating to the GoFundMe that had been set up for the staff.

I haven’t seen any of those friends in the weeks since, except for in Slack channels, text threads, and on Zoom calls where we check in on each other.

One day in a group chat, someone sent the video of our joyful rendition of one of Garth’s greatest hits—the place “where the whiskey drowns and the beer chases.” I’ve watched it dozens of times. It’s proof it ever happened at all—the last good day before everything changed.

Courtney Kueppers is a writer and journalist who lives in Midtown. Her work has been published by outlets including the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, WABE, and the Washington Post.

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