April Paintings

Olivia Simonds reflects on her time in Brooklyn this Spring during the Covid-19 pandemic.

In the rain, the mailman looks like a painting. He is dressed in blue, leaning against a red wall beneath a cherry blossom, the bottom half of his face hidden behind an N95 respirator mask. His eyes are deep and serious, one hand in the pocket of his blue shorts, the other hanging tired, his weight sunken into his right hip. I can tell by his posture that he wants to be left alone in the rain, although my eyes have trouble letting go. Walking ahead now I turn to look back. His N95 mask is moved down to his chin and a cigarette dangles from his mouth, glowing orange and gray dust. On an ordinary spring day in Brooklyn, I could find many scenes as beautiful as this one, still lifes to paint in my head and then stow away in my memories that say this is what April feels like, that I will revisit the following year. I have divided most of my life into imaginary paintings like this, into colors and associations and feelings that I can usually group together throughout the seasons. But this one, the mailman in the rain, stands alone. It is beautiful, as I paint it in my head, but unlike any color, any feeling from last April. I have never felt this one before.

The trees, at least, look all the same. If not more vibrant in bloom, more forthright. I admire them from my window in Brooklyn. This April, the closest I have gotten to spring is from six stories up on the roof of my apartment building. From there I can stretch out and look up at the clouds, or do headstands and see the city upside-down– the Q train gliding along the Manhattan bridge looks like it is falling, the skyscrapers dipping into the East River, the old man on the roof next to mine is floating into the sky. Back on my feet, the city falls into its normal layers. The helicopters above feel like a frenzy of gnats above my line of vision and a bird on the fire escape railing continues to fly away as the chopper blades get closer, coming back once they leave. We look at each other and I say hello.

Since early March the city has fallen still. Beyond the stillness you can hear the birds and the choppers in the sky and, perhaps most eerily, the constant ambulance sirens, roaring over the bridges at night, fading in and out along the streets below, growing nearer and then stopping outside of a house across the way from my building as I fall asleep. I usually never see them, I’m not out much except for the occasional grocery-run, but in the quiet hours of the night and the long stretches of daylight inside or up on the roof, I can hear them. In my head I paint the square frame of an ambulance window, a driver stopped at a red light with one hand on the wheel and the other hand holding his cheek up against the glass. He basks in the moment of stillness that occurs between a red and green light signal, comforted by its authority, its sense of direction and consistency. Through the windshield, his face lights green, as he places both hands on the steering wheel and is gone.

When I go outside I do my best to find the usual smell of spring, the magnolias and cherries and redbuds and dogwoods that fall above me. But this year it is masked by the handkerchief that I have folded into three and banded tightly behind my ears with elastics. The one I wear has a pink and yellow floral pattern and a small stain. I found it up in my mom’s closet and it smells of linen, confusing my sensory input as I gaze up at the colonnaded trees. It’s warm on Willow street and I’m wearing only a light sweater. In front of me, an elderly couple admires a church, its many layers, its stacked tiers, its faded limestone, the sunlight reflecting off the brass bell above. Its stature is stoic and careful. I admire this scene, the couple standing before the church, hand in hand, both of them gloved in latex rubber, one of them gripping a cane. It looks as though they are confiding in the church as would a young child to a parent, a grandparent, a teacher. As though it had a lap to rest their head upon.

The pandemic has managed to command the city into synchronization. I realize this when I see people spaced evenly apart on grocery lines, or two couples walking parallel to each other across the street, or windows flying open at seven pm when the city erupts into cheer; clapping and bells and pots against pans and voices cracking over each other in song from flower planters, people cheering so far in the distance that they appear to be figurines in a dollhouse. Behind the ballad of the city there is death and fear and anger and sirens ringing out in the distance. A knowingness that perhaps has reverted us all into children again.

In front of me on the grocery-line a man in his mid-forties, perhaps a father or a businessman or a CEO from Wall Street, looks at me unnervingly. I realize I have breached the six-foot distance between us and move back, smiling through my mask, my eyes squinting for a brief moment. He smiles back, or so I assume from the creasing of his eyelids, as his chest lets out an exhale, blowing a pocket of air beneath the cotton of his gray sweatshirt.

I paint this scene in my head. This time, the colors are dark and dull, the white linoleum floor beneath his worn-out beige slippers. In front of me, he appears to be just a young boy, disguised as a man. He looks for his mother down the aisles and finds her in six, placing his favorite cereal into her cart, reaching her hand out to him.