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Daniel Fleischman

There is

a delicacy in a wine glass

being flung at a wall,

like a jet-propelled

butterfly. There is

some serenity to light

glinting, like fairy dust,

off curved glass,

like watching the sun

peek in between

trees on the highway,

the pulsing light wishing

you to sleep. There is

satisfaction in the crash

that resounds in your soul,

like an untamed child

playing an untuned piano

to an untold song

of smashing all the highest pitch

keys, following the urge you

resist. There is

peace in the pieces

of stardust that flutter

down the wine-sprinkled

wall. You’ve just watched it shatter

like my will

on center stage–silent

as I fall–leaving

behind the thud of shards

and footsteps as I hurry away.

There is.



Daniel Fleischman is a senior at SUNY Geneseo. He studies creative writing and biology because he believes salamanders are worth writing about, too. At home in Ossining, New York, he can be found running into spiderwebs as he daydreams in nature preserves or admiring his pet cocker spaniel.

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Daniel Fleischman

butterfly tattoo

My collar is starched, preserved and pinned to befit black tie. I sit on white upholstery, upholding

propriety the best I know how. Sweat collects on my shoulders as I shoulder what I so-call

sophistication. Sweat under suit jackets runs black as ink.

I sit and I glance as you dance.

You are turned away from my eyes, faceless,

a butterfly tattoo emblazoned on your back. Motion

proceeds relative to another body,

and I stay motionless,

lost in the flutter. Scapula form lepidoptera

wings that writhe with each twist and rhythm

to escape the confines of skin.

Wings     open     wide, on display, false eyes

      stare back with desire to fly, unrestrained

     by cutaneous          butterfly

nets. So     wings waft           effervescent,  up

     and down, push dust down,

rise up.     The reverse is true, too,            as the butterfly

flies:         push   breath   up,

     rise down.

Oscillation as it levitates,        ambivalent

      to hardwood dancefloor or high ceiling, indifferent

toward struggle     or ease, tumbling,


between fall and flight;

         shoulder blades and life.



Daniel Fleischman is a senior at SUNY Geneseo. He studies creative writing and biology because he believes salamanders are worth writing about, too. At home in Ossining, New York, he can be found running into spiderwebs as he daydreams in nature preserves or admiring his pet cocker spaniel.

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Daniel Fleischman

Chasing Reflections

It is one thing to recognize who’s in the mirror but quite another to feel a connection. I can picture, with an assuredness that makes it scrunch up, every contour of my face, but I cannot bring myself to know it is mine on an emotional level. I can only guess at reflections of faded blue eyes, half-grown eyebrows, and inadvertent scowls to pick myself out from a crowd.

I try to recognize my face under harsh bathroom lighting—all sense of connection warped and washed out. I am seventeen. It is the height of August. I look in my familiar mirror and see a face I don’t want, a face of someone stuck in his ways, a face that seems pudgy and dull and repulsive. Maybe it’s the bathroom’s salmon-pink walls and outdated spherical light fixtures just above the mirror. I watch the mouth hang ajar as I taste something sour. The face is mine, and I know it too well. I stare into my eyes imploring the mirror to change who I am, high on snippets of weight loss stories, warnings from my doctor, and appearance possibilities. I resolved then to lose the physical burden of who I was, not to indulge myself any longer.

I saw, in my mind, the man I wanted to mold out of the fat of a boy, to sculpt with the intention and pride I lacked. In front of the mirror, I imagine my thumb and forefinger pinching and dragging to create prominent cheekbones and a jawline like shattered glass barely covered by tanned skin. I wrangle my nose with a crack and squeeze of its bony bridge, bringing it to a gentle, inconspicuous slope. I try to twist my expression into something new, massaging flesh into a face disinterested in the world. I force open my eyes, so my irises don’t simply leak out from squinting eyelids like beady afterthoughts. I rip apart rough blotches of skin and remove the capillaries just under the surface—fingernails negotiating with anatomy to eliminate my propensity to blush. I yank at my cheeks hoping to make my face gaunt and chiseled. I bash in my forehead with the base of my palm in an effort to combat how far it protrudes. I want a face like a wall, able to wholly contain the humdrum of the restless neuroses going on in my head. I want to create a Frankenstein’s monster of myself—an amalgamation of stolen anatomy I could bend to my own vain ideals.

I wanted to construct my face, pick out the pieces and tweak. To choose. To morph and distort to fit my perception of stoic, of attractive. I wanted a face with a stony, unencumbered gaze my mind could attempt to imitate. I wanted everyone to see me, to want me, not this desperate need to chase. I wanted a face that doesn’t twitch its pleading eyes around to its own reflection at every turn.

Pleading eyes only go so far for identifying a problem to be changed. You must substantiate a problem before it can be addressed. Food is the problem. Food merges with your identity and self-perception, the fat, the chronic exhaustion, the overeating, the Fluffernutter sandwiches with far too much fluff, the ginger ale you somehow convince yourself it’s okay to suck down when you get home from school, the excessive salt of leftover pork chops you scarf down because it makes more sense to finish them up before you make more, the stretch marks that adorn your abdomen and grow up with you, the blue jeans that are more like circus tents, and the person you’ve become, the only person you know, the person you’ve resigned to accept.

Eating was a part of my identity. It felt good to taste things and gorge myself beyond the pressure of a full belly, and it was better than doing nothing. Food fills time and space. Eating goes beyond a biological process. Losing weight, like it or not, means losing parts of yourself.

Gym class. Senior year of high school. The assignment is to assess your physical condition by BMI, place yourself in a category—obese, overweight, healthy, or underweight—and evaluate what steps to take to reach “healthy” on a little index card. There’s something demoralizing about honesty, accepting the truth about your own wrongdoings, failures, and weaknesses. There’s something demoralizing about taking that real look at yourself—to become your own objective mirror. But I was honest then. I sat on a bleacher of beige plastic, seething as I forced my hands to stop trembling. Tennis shoes squeaked on the sticky gloss of the gym floor. My name is Daniel Fleischman. I am currently obese at 17 with a weight of 281 pounds. I should eat less and exercise more. 

I didn’t follow my own instructions then. I was complicit in letting myself languish in self-destruction. I ate and ate knowing full well the dangers of not being “healthy,” and I went along with it, for nearly eighteen years I went along with it.

I tell people my motivation was my health. That’s only half the truth. August, the summer before college, the phone rings. I’ve been dreading the call. It was my doctor, a pediatrician who has known me since I was born and watched me grow tall and wide. He was following up on blood work from a checkup two weeks earlier.

“Hello?” I say.

“Hi. Is this Daniel Fleischman?” His voice was restrained, languid even, deep and smooth as it always was, paternal in his delivery. He knew just where to inflect, perfect bedside manner. Maybe he’s just a good person.

“Hi, Dr. Branch.” I begin to pace around my kitchen.

“We have the results back from your blood work.” Papers rustle.

There are still scabs from the blood being drawn, my arm too fat to find the vein on the first go. I walk down the hall and into the bathroom, the one with salmon-pink walls and round lights. “Go ahead,” I say. I know it isn’t going to be good.

“Your blood pressure is a little high; so is your cholesterol. You fall into what we consider pre-diabetic. You’re at a heightened risk for type 2 diabetes. If we don’t make a change to your diet or exercise routine, your health will remain in question,” he says.

I lean on the sink with one elbow, phone in the other, and look down. I couldn’t look in the mirror. He reads off several more formalities—tips for portion control, a suggestion to do more cardio, and advice to discuss this with my parents. He asks me if I understand. I do. All the fat and excess skin on my torso droop downwards as my back arches over the sink.

“Thank you for calling, Dr. Branch. I’ll eat less and exercise more.”

I didn’t know if that was a lie or just an empty promise. The least I could do was look in the mirror. I should’ve been concerned with my health. I was. I am. But, in the moment, all I saw was my ugly face. I didn’t want to be ugly. I wanted to be more attractive, slimmer, appealing. I had graduated from high school that June, and I didn’t want to be fat through college. I wanted to reinvent myself, rebel like so many others do, become a new person, kiss someone, have sex, lose myself and the face I recognized all too much, and watch it all melt off like quicksilver. I wanted to change the reflection, my outward presentation to the world and all its creatures at any cost.

The cost was food. About two weeks after I had decided to slim down that summer, my first sacrifice came and went. My family and I went to get ice cream. All four of us: my father who’s had salt-and-pepper hair since he was twenty-something. He dyes his hair brown now. He likes navy blue nylon dry-fit shirts and cell phone holders that attach to his belts. He shed the carapace that was his own obesity a couple years before. I can still remember the tattered green recliner that used to creak and whimper under him as he drank coke by the liter and vanilla ice cream by the tub before passing out, not to be disturbed. My father’s weight left with that chair, yet the memory lingers. My mother who has hazel hair that curls down to her shoulders and frames a round face. Her presence brings the word jolly to mind, but you bite your tongue because that would be an awful thing to say. She once looked like me. She feeds the family. Every morning and night for our entire lives, she has fed us. She takes pride in feeding us, but she turns down compliments. A good cook, nothing more. Food made us happy, so she fed us. Us, as in my sister who pretends not to care, and me. My sister who was as voracious as me but smiled more, who doubted I could shed the pounds that she hasn’t managed to, who was most surprised to see me thin, who, I believe, feels guilt over that doubt in hindsight.

We went to an ice cream stand called King Kone whose sign is a creepy ice cream cone with a face: smug, smirking, and cold. Its cheeks are permanently red and reminded me of my own. I saw my face in the sign’s undefined jawline and head round like a marshmallow. It seemed to laugh at me as it taunted my stomach into rumbling.

“What are you gonna get, Dan?” my sister asks as we drive up, my eyes still observing the sign.


“He’s been eating less, Jess, honey. You know that,” my mother says, coming to my defense as she often does.

“But you have to have some,” my sister insists, digging her finger into my cheek. “Why did you even come with us if you’re not getting any ice cream?”

“I wanted to spend time with you guys,” I say in good faith, while swatting her hand away with rotund fingers, fully aware food is what brings families, ours included, together. When you’re eating, you don’t have to talk. We pull into the parking lot.

My usual order was a medium chocolate-vanilla twist with rainbow sprinkles, always rainbow sprinkles. Instead I feast my eyes on familial tongues shoveling the frozen custard into their mouths. I surprise myself when I am actually able to hold back and not get a cone. All I have to do is not eat. The more you put in, the more weight you’ll put on. Not doing something is easier than doing something. Thoughts followed me around as a hundred pounds sloughed off like an insect’s molt. I watched my reflection in the side window the whole way home.

You must commit to losing weight; eating is a choice that can be denied. All I did was cut calories, limit portion size, and, well, skip meals. Breakfast was out, and lunch was something I learned to go without most days—a secret deprivation I held close to my slimming chest when my mother called and asked if I was eating. Fall semester, freshman year of college was colored by dizzy spells and the warm, fuzzy black of failing peripheral vision when I stood up too fast. I only fainted once.

I got out of bed and stood on legs that gave out like the spongy grilled chicken I would allow myself. A tingling sensation originating from my stomach climbed up my spine. My vision went to black, then I felt my knees, my forearms hit the floor, and then my head hit the dresser. But I was fine, resilient, strong. I had resolve.

I knew what I was doing was wrong and destructive and too far in the other extreme. I knew that in the moment, and I know that much better now looking back. I can’t change my actions, though, especially when I reap the benefits now. I can’t condemn myself for my past methods when I’m content with the results in the present. All I can do is accept it and move on.

I knew I had succeeded, and I wanted others to know, too–to look up at the cliff I stood atop, the one that had taken so long to climb. After freshman year of college, a year after I began to lose the weight, I went to see Dr. Branch for another checkup. I told my mother I wanted to make sure everything was up to par in terms of health, but, deep down, I wanted to be praised.

I drive to his office, stealing glances at myself  in the rear-view mirror. I park and step out, my eyes jump from window to window in search of better views of myself. I step through the automatic doors. The waiting room is empty besides a receptionist, a rainbow of plastic children’s chairs, and a fish tank. I sit across from the fish tank and meet my own eyes in the reflection while I pretend to watch fish. The seat feels so much better when you can fit in it. I am called into the office.

There, I strip to my boxers and mess with the scale, satisfied. Dr. Branch walks in.

“Wow, look at you! You look great,” he says.

I smile.

“This is absolutely fantastic. I can see you’ve really taken your health to heart. This is one of the most drastic improvements I’ve seen in my career. You’ve made my week, Daniel. How’d you do it?”

“Portion control.” I don’t tell him about starving myself.

Frankenstein’s monster was beautiful before it came to life. Is guilt the right word for what I felt? Maybe. Or was it pride? Acceptance, regret, shame, control, or strength, perhaps? Did I hate who I was or simply want to improve? Did I just switch from gluttony to vanity, indulging my thin dreams pulled taut like a sheet over a bottomless pit of insecurity rather than resigning myself to a life of endless pepperoni and onion pizzas?  These are the thoughts that enter my mind when I look in a mirror. I don’t have answers. They just float around in space as I look myself in the eye with a dash of pity and glimmers of satisfaction, my hands resting on the cold porcelain of my sink. I can’t help but watch my reflection match my stride and meet my eyes in a window as I walk past. I try to grab my thoughts as I ogle the image of my face in the screen of my phone. I’m forced to meet my own gaze, myself a reflection, as I try to find the line between new and old.

People throw the word “journey” around like it means something. I stood still, and the world moved around me, twisting and distorting like rolls of fat moving out like a shock-wave, as if someone smacked my gut when I was seventeen. I chose to stop moving, forego who I was a hundred pounds ago in favor of a face I didn’t know in a reflection I’d never seen. I thought I could be better. I thought losing weight would do that. Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein ends in a long, desperate chase: Victor Frankenstein chases his creation, his monster, the reflection of his and humanity’s greatest delusions, into frozen tundra and death. Then the monster mourns.

For a long time, I would look at mirrors and want to see something else, but I never sloughed off my cynical, self-serving doubts that a thin me would ever be me. Thin is impossible; fat is forever. But now I am thin, and I look at myself at every chance I get, and I like what I see, but I get absorbed in forehead wrinkles and the pronounced brow bone that remain. Now, I look at mirrors to make sure I never go back. I fill my hand with the same kind of fat, there’s just less of it. The stretch marks are still there—tiny ravines of skin stretched paper thin that look like they could tear at any time. Thin is possible; flaws are forever. I don’t think I’ve even moved an inch.

All I heard for a while were faceless “Congratulations!” and “You’ve lost so much weight! You look so good!” or, like my cousin before a light Thanksgiving dinner, “I didn’t even recognize you!” If I could work up the nerve, I would smile and hug them and feel hands on my shoulder blades. I’m the only one who’s allowed to question if it’s really me.

I never lost the weight of what I saw in the mirror that summer. I just held myself back, never eating or accepting. I know lots of people don’t feel quite right in their own skin—or fat for that matter—but they move on in stride. In my eyes, they do not get stuck in their reflection and peer at windows or chrome finish or TV screens looking for someone who isn’t there and who they’re scared to ever have back. The world stops. When I walk past a window, I indulge myself. I indulge myself. I indulge myself beyond recognition.

I peer at the handsome reflection rather than through the window. There is another me looking back through the same pane.  He knows every secret about me; I know every secret about him. He knows what I’ve gained, and I know what he’s lost. I see someone who could’ve kept the pounds with the lick of an ice cream cone with rainbow sprinkles. Only chance divides past and present. Either one of us could be the one on the outside looking in, haunting the other, both apparitions bound by action and inaction, the same person underneath the fat. I force myself to relearn, without even slowing my pace, who is stuck inside the glass.

Daniel Fleischman is a senior at SUNY Geneseo. He studies creative writing and biology because he believes salamanders are worth writing about, too. At home in Ossining, New York, he can be found running into spiderwebs as he daydreams in nature preserves or admiring his pet cocker spaniel.

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The Art of the Experience: Considering Daniel Fleischman’s “Metropolis”


Posted by David Beyea, CNF Reader for 8.1

It seems odd to refer to a piece as being a clear love letter to the art of literary form. Isn’t that just a pompous way of saying that it is well-written? Perhaps not. In this issue of Gandy Dancer, Daniel Fleischman’s nonfiction short story “Metropolis” details the experiences of the author as he grew to accept life in New York City.

Certainly others have written of the city before, but there is a magnetism and finesse to Fleischman’s craft that elevates it from mere travelogue erotica. His pen is cast across the page with an unabashed exuberance; he frequently dips into descriptive prose and ruminates on not just the situations he finds himself in, but on the nature of civilization’s anthills. What does a city mean? It’s not really a question I ever considered, nor one that Fleischman explicitly answers. Unlike many authors describing a location, he does not attempt to solve the city, to have each element of it associated with some strong conclusion on the nature of life. Instead, he paints it. Continue reading

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Daniel Fleischman

To gully

Settlers dispute by a muddy creek

over land rights and property but

patience erodes, and a gully knife

stays with the body it sliced.

A gully guts a man;


gul·ly | \‘gə-lē \


1 : a large knife

2 : a trench which was originally worn in the earth by running water

and through which water often runs after it rains

3 : a small valley or gulch


gullied ; gullying

transitive verb

: to make gullies in

intransitive verb

: to undergo erosion : form gullies

A gully guts the earth.

A boy in Converse slides down slopes of dried leaves,

leaving trails of bare mud exposed.

Before they happen upon an oversized knife—

life stolen by the gully.

Time is both body and landscape, forever changing

forms, but experience sticks in our minds.

Daniel Fleischman is a senior at SUNY Geneseo. He studies creative writing and biology because he believes salamanders are worth writing about, too. At home in Ossining, New York, he can be found running into spiderwebs as he daydreams in nature preserves or admiring his pet cocker spaniel between budget horror movies.

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Daniel Fleischman


Metro; Mother. Polis; City. From the Greek. Cities have mass. Concrete a thousand feet skyward weighs down on onlookers and inhabitants, stalwart against updrafts and the disbelief in tourists’ crooked necks. The heights of human civilization. Metropolis—a culmination of geography we carry on hunched shoulders.

By all accounts, New York City is crowded. Bridges crowd, buildings crowd, people crowd. I crowd around a stage with strangers. My mother sits to my left, holding my hand with the soft palm of hers. Her hand is warm compared to the cool wood armrest under my five-year-old hand. My eyes bound between a golden yellow dress and a rose in a glass case. Song mixes with the faint perfume my mother always mists for rare occasions. The scent is inseparable from the concentric teardrops of her rose gold necklace she adorns above her maroon blouse. The lighting from the stage draws amber streaks out of the light brown curls that frame her round face. Her smile is slight, content. I smile, too. The Beast dances with Belle, lamenting their plights, and I feel the weight of the city for the first time: below the architecture, below the culture, below the skyline, I catch glimpses of our home thirty miles north. My earliest memory of the city.

“Where’d you get all these stamps, Mom?” This world is quieter, less exaggerated.

“I’ve just collected them over the years.” A few hundred stamps spread across our dining room table, the ones you press into ink to replicate a little design. I love the dragonfly one. The smooth hourglass of the wooden handle contours into my palm. We’re under the warm light of the dining room table chandelier. There are other markers, crayons, and paints scattered around like a technicolor hurricane. I eye the markers with the little shapes instead of tips; a flourish of tiny green dog paws is my signature; its good enough for a seven-year-old. We’re making cards for something, someone. Newspapers underlay the messier activities. I clutch the dragonfly stamp.

“You’ve got to push down really hard, so it gets enough ink,” Mom says, opening the ink pad’s plastic case for me. I do as I’m told. I put as much effort as I can into the stamp. Drops of ink form on either side.

“Like this?” I ask between strained grimaces.

“Maybe a little too hard.” Mom puts her hand on mine and lifts it up off the pad a little. Her hands are soft and clean. My hands are a mess of green marker, blue paint, and a ladybug my mother stamped on earlier. She puts her focus back into her paintbrush, the kind with a little sponge at the end. I want to be like my mother, engaged in the creation of something. I put my hand over a scrap of forest green construction paper and stamp the dragonfly, testing it out a few times. I put one on my card.

There’s innocence here in the suburbs. Expanses of nuclear families holed up in their hollows. There’s no expectation of appearances in a shadow—no real history or culture to behold. But it feels less developed, as if the achievements of mankind suddenly stop where the Hudson meets the Harlem River. All one can do is live. But there are hints, hints brought back by suit-and-tied commuters and family day trips, allowing culture to leach out from population centers—where mothers take sons to see musicals and to dream a bit bigger than their bedroom walls.

For every center, for every polis, there is a periphery eternally in the wings. It’s called Suburbia. To be sub, below, the urban, the city. From the Latin. Like subterranean subway cars. New York City exerts a pressure of wonder in tow behind the smog. We always ride the train into and back out of the city. Metro North goes right through Croton-Harmon station, a two-minute car ride from our home up on the steep eastern slope of the Hudson Valley. I always think the train station looks like a spider with broken legs, zig-zagged and straddling above the railways. Rail lines spread like a spider’s web across the tri-state area, the metropolitan area, radiating out from the center.

They’re habitual: the train rides. My mother doesn’t like to ride backwards for the hour on the train. She gets nauseous, but New York City is there, so we go. I watch the Hudson River fly by between cattails, graffitied tunnels, and rocky shores. The Tappan Zee, the old rusted, steel one since demolished (the new one is futuristic and grand, straightedge), flies over head. It’s the same path I’ve travelled since I was five, the same sticky plastic upholstery of Metro North seats. Mother North, that’s funny, just like my mother who nods off next to me as we rumble toward Grand Central once again.

“I love you, Sweetie,” whispers the wall.

“Oh my gosh! I can hear you!” I say back to the beige tiles. My mother is twenty or so feet away, facing a corner, back turned to me. I’m doing the same, back turned to her. In the dining concourse of Grand Central Terminal, there’s an intersection between the foot ramp up to Forty-Second Street and the entrance to the Oyster Bar. The domed ceiling carries words from corner to opposite corner, privacy from the line of other tourists waiting their turn. The secret of the architecture is a miracle to a ten-year-old.

“They have a table inside. Let’s go eat,” my mother says to the wall, referring to our large group of neighbors taking an excursion into the city.

“But I don’t like seafood.”

“I know. They’ll have something else,” she reassures me. I leave my corner and we walk in together. It’s dimly lit, and the air is heavy, stagnant. I look at the tank full of rubber-banded lobsters and pinch my nose.

“It smells like fish in here.”

“You’ll get used to it,” my mother says, not giving in to my whines as she drags me along by my wrist. I’d rather be outside whispering anonymous messages into the wall, pretending to be a ghost. We sit down at a long table for our party of twelve. My mother directs me to sit next to my sister, despite my protests. She meets my father and the other adults at the far end of the table.

Soon platters of oysters arrive in ice baths on freezing aluminum plates. My scrunched-up nose signals my mother to come over. I smell her perfume again as she reaches down between us to grab an oyster. She teaches me and my sister how to eat them. Pick up a nice juicy one, holding the ugly, bumpy underside with one hand. Use the little fork to detach the meat from the slick, pearly interior. Squeeze some lemon juice on it and drip on some cocktail sauce. Slurp in, chew a little, swallow.

“Go ahead, try it.”

I watch my mother demonstrate the final step. I watch the other adults indulge. I want to be like them, in the city doing fancy, sophisticated things. I need to live up to the genius and aesthetic of the city planted above my head. I am in its roots; I have to act like it. I tilt my head back and try to swallow as fast as I can. I taste acid combined with the salty water of the lower Hudson. It has the consistency of snot and is about to slide down my throat. I think of pearls and Aphrodite, as I’ve been told oysters are an aphrodisiac, though I thought that was just related to the goddess. I think of the famous constellated ceiling a hundred feet above my head, then through the ceiling, through its admirers gazing upward, and I wonder where Venus is on the celestial map. I think of Manhattan like a grimy pearl, rising out of the polluted harbor seafoam along with the skyline, and I want to rise too. I forget to chew, but I manage to keep the oyster down. We find our way back home to our place on the bumpy shell. I get used to my suburban shell. I get used to the smell.

Comfort is slow and all-consuming. At fifteen, I’m growing. My legs grow longer, my arteries stretch, and I ache. “Stand up straight” becomes my mother’s most common refrain. My height becomes a constant shifting with the command of her words. Perspectives shift in puberty, along with posture. At some point, I begin to value space over potential discomfort. And New York City is crowded. The novelty of the LED screens of Time Square gives way to the smell of piss and exhaust. The crystal ball that drops every New Year’s stops being crystal. The thought of people looking at me strangely for looking up at expanses of glass windows becomes more painful than missing out or the strain in my neck. The heights of civilization become a hassle to climb, the view stops mattering when my suburban bed is soft.

My mother pushes me. I try to oblige. I join Model UN, representing Jamaica—the country, not Queens—and spend an April weekend in New York. The hotel is large and in Midtown. We ride the train into Grand Central and I watch the floor tiles go by underfoot, conscious to not look up like all the tourists. I wear baggy jeans and a brown sweatshirt that I wear every day to school. I carry a blue duffle bag of dress shirts and an ill-fitting blazer as naturally as I can, trying to live up to the mystique of the city despite my resentment, my weak attempt to blend in. Architecture, no matter how grand, can only hide people for so long.

We get to the hotel where the convention is being held, and it’s just tall, nothing more. Each meeting I attend has a silent Jamaica. I go to meetings in windowless rooms with other teenagers who are driven to engage. I’m adamant in keeping quiet for two days. I eat gyros from a Zagat rated food stand with a wooden structure and plexiglass door to make it a restaurant, not confident enough to go beyond a hundred feet from the hotel. I’m embarrassed of the fancy suit I’m wearing. The velcro of the wallet I have never used before grates on my ears even more than the car horns. It’s nighttime, but the city refuses to get dark. Streetlights, buildings, everything lights up, exposing, rendering all of me in full color. The buildings are not artistic expressions of modernity anymore; they are slabs of concrete and rebar, blocking out the moon and stars. The wind follows the streets as artificial channels, and it blows around my brown waves of hair.

I find it hard to breathe in a space so disassociated. People walk in their own directions, no eye contact, just existing in the same space. The buildings do not waver like me as they rise. The air itself is forced to be there, to enter my lungs. I’m partaking in it: the burden of the practical, running from expression. The anxiety tastes sour. I take my gyro and go back inside the hotel. I miss my home. I miss my mother.

“How was it, Honey?” my mother asks, embracing me at Croton-Harmon once we get back. I look in her hazel eyes.

“It was great,” I lie. It is functional.

Walking in New York City is always touristic, a voyeuristic sensation from looking into a world that isn’t mine. No matter how logical the gridlines or how enthusiastically I greet the apathy of the city, it seems foreign. The edges are so sharp, the spires ready to pierce the sky. Architecture caught between opulence of Beaux Arts and Art Deco and Modernist all at odds with one another; the first ingrained in the wealth of the past, the second caught up in the industrial aspirations of the Interwar, the third obsessed with form that follows function. A place where the MetLife Building seems to grow out from Grand Central like an opportunistic weed.

I’m used to houses with faux wood siding and rough gray shingles next to a smattering of trees. I’m used to the sugar maple in front of my home that drops leaves to rake, and the beige vinyl that’s shown off to disorganized, calm roads I can navigate like nothing. I get lost on grids. My frame of mind is bound by the extraordinary ordinary, unsettled by places where sculptures grow like trees, the sky is held up by rooftops, and the basements aren’t pitch black subways or oyster bars.

Six years later, I am doing laundry in my basement and I heft overstuffed hampers over the clutter. Boxes of Old Navy snow pants many sizes too small, a couple of tires next to the boiler, crates of my mother’s crafting supplies (needles, multitudes of multi-color threads, cutesy stamps with associated ink, scrapbooks, pieces of wood), a knitted rainbow scarf I haven’t worn since I was eight draped over a wooden rafter, the pantry where we keep cans of baked beans, more and more things.

The riffraff creates an aisle just wide enough to shuffle to the washer and dryer as my bare feet are sanded by concrete. I knock into a picture frame, and it falls forward. I didn’t know there were any paintings down here. Setting the laundry basket down on the dingy blue rug in front of the washing machine, I turn around, eyebrows raised and jaw slack. I never noticed the frame and its contents before. I pick it up.

It is a painting. No, it’s flatter and cleaner than anything that could be created by brush strokes. It is more of a framed poster, but matte without the high gloss. My eyes attach to the only spot of distinct color—a golden orange in a sea of blues and blacks—which runs up the plumage of a woman’s headdress. What appears to be feathers, mostly orange but with accents of purple, are so large they might’ve come from a mythical bird deity. The feathers curve from well below her hip back up to her head as she leans back, well aware of her grace. Her skin is pure white, her eyes more smudged dots of shadow than any realized form, and there’s a little rouge on her lips. Her face, however, pales in the presence of what she wears. Once I follow the headdress up to her face, I see her dress: a patterned black broken up by gray into irregular scales. It is like a robe enveloping her, only the nape of her neck and right shoulder are exposed—sultry. It takes me a second to see the panther’s head. The dress is a hide, the head forming more or less a belt, and the fangs a buckle. My eyes follow the dress down to where paws were dragging behind her obscured frame. White, horizontal lines overlay a perfect blue gradient for the background—indigo on the bottom, powder blue at the top. It doesn’t occur to me until later that the artist’s perspective is behind the woman, as she swaggers up the gradient staircase at some kind of high fashion gala, walking away from me. A vision of the Art Deco.

It’s a serigraph: a type of print that utilizes silk to transfer color. Which is appropriate considering the focus on fashion. Thoughts beyond staring are lost on me, though, all I can do is contemplate. In my nearly twenty years of living in this house, in the dried-out suburbs of New York, New York—of the mother city—at home is the farthest thing from what I feel in my basement now. I feel underdressed as I navel gaze at the visage, naked in my dark blue basketball shorts, white T-shirt, and uncombed hair. My slouch is heavy as I hold the woman up at arm’s length.

It smells like damp wood in the basement. Though I’ve never seen her before, I feel like I have. There’s an aesthetic of unabashed appreciation for the self, the human form, and the balance with function, something I devalued somewhere along my way. It is clear and near and muted. Distant but comforting. I take the woman, in her frame. I walk back over the exposed concrete, through the clutter, up the tarnished cream-colored steps.

“Mom, have you seen this?”

Art Deco is about access. Like the serigraph in my basement, mass-produced. Art Deco arose alongside industrialization, alongside the rise of capitalism. Magazine covers pushed out serigraphs en masse as a means to connect with people, even ones outside or tangential to the art world.

Fashion, in particular, is a vehicle to appeal to people who wanted artistry in a functional medium. Art Deco’s aesthetic is clear, lines and curves, with obvious subject matter. It’s caught between the practical and the aesthetic. A blend of form and function.

But excitement and economies grow stable after world wars. Form, creativity for its own sake, is lost. Art Deco morphs into the modernist movement. Architecture captures the essence best with its axiom: “form follows function.” Buildings like the Twin Towers, hailed as “filing cabinets” unrelenting in their commitment to run-of-the-mill, straight-edge capitalism, no access through beauty. It became the norm for city centers and skyscrapers; no new Chrysler Buildings. But the Chrysler Building’s spire still flares out like a dress from a serigraph. The aesthetic, however ornamental, still exists.

I’m seeing a Broadway show, Wicked, with my sister six months or so after meeting the Art Deco woman. We pass the outer side of Thirty Rockefeller Center, the skyscraper across from St. Patrick’s Cathedral. It extends into the sky at right-angle steps forming stairways to the gods flanking a central block. As the sides of the building reach the top, they increase in frequency, mimicking a low-resolution logarithmic curve. From afar or a bird’s eye view, it appears to be carved, curving into a smooth, aerodynamic fin for the island of Manhattan, made up by skinny rectangular prisms—a mixed form between straight lines and sweeping curves. Some office space is sacrificed in the name of sculpture. 1939; Firm Art Deco.

At the base, staring down the Gothic Revival cathedral, stands Atlas—cast in bronze—along Fifth Avenue. I look up at the statue. He holds up the heavens, a stellar globe reduces to four rings wrapping around each other. I think of my mother’s necklace. Entire solar systems rests on the backs of the titan cursed to hold up the sky. Skyscrapers are condemned to the same fate, pushing against gravity, resisting the irresistible. Forward progress in the name of greatness.

What must it be like to struggle with the weight of the world? New York City holds up the excellence of a species in a sphere of intense proximity but is burdened by unfamiliarity. Suburbia—below the city—supports the polis by providing a foundation, as the base of Thirty Rockefeller tapers out behind the statue. Each identical house is a new world held up by families. An oyster presenting a pearl. A mother carrying her child.

Man builds up the geography, the context, and struggles against it. The artificial and the natural conflict in waterways and landscapes, each yearning to take over or reclaim the other. The sky is heavy, heavier than buildings and cities. Function crushes creativity; efficiency overtakes aesthetic. But in art, in Art Deco, the context of a modernizing world in its infancy mixes with realities of engineering. Art Deco, like New York, like Suburbia, like me, comes to be characterized by the tension of contexts. Tension defines art forms, places. Art Deco: a transition between prosperity and ambition for more. New York: a single point of geography turned crossroads of the world made of concrete and dreams. Suburbia: a tourist in the shadow of Atlas. Me: my mother’s son who was overwhelmed by even that. I straighten my back, turn, and run after my sister. Atlas strains against the weight of the globe behind me.

Daniel Fleischman is a senior at SUNY Geneseo. He studies creative writing and biology because he believes salamanders are worth writing about, too. At home in Ossining, New York, he can be found running into spiderwebs as he daydreams in nature preserves or admiring his pet cocker spaniel between budget horror movies.

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