Private Fireworks

Private Fireworks

Private Fireworks 1920 1280 Alexandra Persad

Last week, I asked my roommate what her favorite compliment she has ever received was. She sat back in our living room chair and thought for a moment. She didn’t question why I was asking, but she considered the question carefully, running through her mental compliment rolodex.

“I like it when people tell me that I’m smart,” she said finally.

I picked at the cat hair imbedded into the pajama pants my boyfriend had gotten me for Christmas. I had been hoping that her answer would make me feel better about my own, but it had the opposite effect.

Smart. It was such a good answer. It was the definitively right answer to a question that did not have one. I had wanted her answer to be as shallow as mine. If she had posed the same question, I would have felt small telling her the truth.

I kept my answer to myself.

I like it when people tell me I’m pretty.


When I was in high school, I kept a journal. I wrote in it for a minimum of two hours before I went to bed. My hands would cramp, and my pens would run out of ink and my notebooks would run out of pages. I wrote out all my nothing thoughts and my nothing worries and my nothing hopes and my nothing dreams.

On one page, I remember writing, I wonder if he thinks I’m pretty.

A hope. A hope about some boy I don’t know anymore. I didn’t care if he thought I was smart or funny or interesting.

I wanted him to think I was pretty. I wanted everyone to think I was pretty.


I used to watch my mother put on makeup before she left the house. Sometimes I would brush the white powder over my skin and watch it sit on top. A wash of white against brown.

My skin was dirt and hers was porcelain. She had the same skin as everyone I saw. All the white faces in my class. All the white-faced parents that came to pick up their white-faced children. All the white-faced models in magazines. All the white-faced actresses on TV.

My mother was pretty in a way I would never be. In the way that all pretty people were pretty.


My skin got whiter as I got older. The less I ate, the more the color drained from my face, as if it took energy for my skin to be brown.

I felt prettier without dirty skin. Prettier as I deflated into the small pile of bones I was becoming. Prettier with thinning hair.

A clump of strands fell to the shower floor. It was almost too much for the drain to swallow. The strands curled around the drain before it gurgled, exhaled, and choked them down. I waited for the rest of my body to crumble. To turn to silt. To follow the current and wash away.

I felt my scalp while I waited. A small patch had become bare.

I wondered if I looked pretty. I asked my journal.

I wrote less about my thoughts and more about food. The pages had become more numbers than words. Numbers that analyzed the calories of every bite I put in my mouth. The numbers became lower and my bites became smaller.

I did too.

Whenever I stood up, a black curtain that exploded with white fireworks replaced my vision. Sometimes the fireworks dizzied me so much, I fell back down.

My stomach growled faintly in the background. Distantly. Almost like applause.

That’s when I felt pretty.


If my stomach wasn’t empty, I emptied it. No one was applauding me when it was full.

I threw up in every bathroom in the world. Empty fast food bathrooms. Occupied fast food bathrooms. Fancy restaurant bathrooms. Hospital bathrooms. School bathrooms with Sharpie-covered stalls. The giant guest bathroom at my friend’s house. My downstairs bathroom with the blue shower curtain and matching rugs.

I did not want to throw up. I did not want to scrape the back of my throat or clean up all the bile that covered my fingers, my face, my hair, my mother’s blue bathroom rugs.

But I did want to be pretty. I stared at myself in the mirror. I inhaled the reflection, the girl looking back at me. She smelled like bile. Sour and rotten. It lingered underneath her fingernails no matter how hard she scrubbed. Her eyes were black—a combination of her mascaraed tears and sunken eyes.

I didn’t recognize her. I did not look like her.

“You look sick,” my brother told me one day when he was visiting from college. I must have visibly brightened at these words because he shook his head. “It’s not a good thing.”

But I thought it was. When my mother hugged me in the kitchen and told me the same thing, I thought it was a compliment that I could finally accept because it was true. My bones cracked under the weight of my mother’s arms, crushing my body against hers. I only heard her breathing in my ear, crying for me to please eat something—anything. Please. I hated hearing her beg, hearing her cry.

She cried everywhere. In the car when she put her hand on my leg and felt how small I had become beneath my baggy clothes. In my bedroom when she walked in on me changing. In the doctor’s office parking lot after seeing my weight on the scale.

Sometimes, when her tears were dried, and she didn’t know if she could cry anymore—if her body would even let her produce that many tears—she yelled. Yelled that I needed to fix myself. Yelled that I looked like death. Yelled that it was her fault. Then, she would cry again.


When I brought my tenth-grade school photos home, I gave my mother the sealed envelope. The seal didn’t hiding anything. The package was clear, a thin piece of transparent laminate covering my halfhearted smile, my stringy hair and button-up shirt I didn’t like but my mothered insisted I wear.

She looked from me to the girl in the picture who gazed at her through the wrinkled plastic.

“These are terrible,” she said. “You look too thin.” Her eyebrows furrowed together. They formed an angry V, like a volcano that was about to explode. “I can’t do anything with these.”

She opened the drawer to our China cabinet and threw them inside, shutting it loudly. The unused dishes rattled on the shelves.

After my mother stormed off, I opened the drawer and inspected the pictures myself, breaking the seal and holding them in my hands. I thought she looked pretty. My mother was right—she did look thin. Her bones poked through the thin fabric of her shirt. Her cheeks and jaw gave her face a sharp outline that matched the rest of her body.

My mother didn’t understand that I had never been like her. Never looked like her. Never felt like her.

But I finally did.

Fireworks exploded behind my eyes.


When I was little, I used to dress up in my mother’s clothes. She let me venture into the depths of her closet. All her fancy clothes hung out there, as if they were some part of an exclusive club. They didn’t need pale model bodies to wear them. They were already full of life.

When I put on her dresses, I took the life out of them. They wore my child body, instead of the other way around. Hem lines dragged on the ground and the bodices sagged at my waistline, but I loved looking at myself in her mirror. I looked back over my shoulder, posing for the cover of a magazine.

When I was older I learned why all those unworn clothes existed in the back of her closet.

“They’re from when I modeled,” my mother answered offhandedly. She was holding the newspaper between her fingertips, licking them each time she turned the page.

My jaw dropped slightly, but she wasn’t looking. “You modeled?” I asked.

She shrugged. “For a bit.”

It made sense. My mother had been one of them. One of the girls on the glossy pages of a magazine. Tall, skinny, white, and uncaring. Even now, she didn’t care—didn’t care enough to even look up from her newspaper.

I pictured her under flashing lights, surrounded by people admiring what she was wearing, how the fabric fell on her feminine frame as her long arms and legs sashayed. It wasn’t hard to imagine. It was an image that had always been in my mind.

“Why did you stop?”

“It was miserable,” she said. “It’s a terrible industry.”

Then, she set down her paper and looked at me overtop her glasses. “Please don’t ever do that.”

She said it as if modeling was a possibility for me. As if I could be like her.

Her white hands picked the paper back up.

I looked down at the dirty hands in my lap. “I won’t,” I said.


When I was a child, my mother gave me one of her dresses. It was belted, black and sleeveless. Thin lines of pleats began at the waist and traveled down the skirt.

I wore it regularly. I’d slip it on and dance around my bedroom at night, enjoying the feeling of the wind between my legs when I twirled. I imagined how it looked on the runway when she wore it.

But as I got older, I stopped wearing the black dress. I kept it tucked away in the back of my closet behind my ordinary clothes. I wanted to forget what it looked like. I wanted to forget how the waist cinched to fit an impossibly small figure.

But the image was stuck in my mind. Even when I wasn’t wearing it, I could see myself in it, bouncing between the shadows of my room, happy and childish.

I no longer had the body of a child. My legs had gotten wider, my chest had gotten rounder, and my arms had gotten bigger.

I began stealing the measuring tape from my mother’s sewing box to wrap it around each limb. I recorded the numbers in the margins of my journal before sneaking it back the next morning.

The numbers began to drop as I ate less. I felt better the more they dropped. I enjoyed looking back at the pages of my journal, admiring how I had made my body change. I felt like the dress in my closet had become something that I deserved to have hidden away.

When my body began to crumble in on itself, when I didn’t have the energy to walk upstairs to my bedroom, when I had to wear my hair in braids to cover the thinning spots, when I had to cut my fingernails short to keep the back of my throat from being scratched raw, I felt like I deserved it.  Like I could own a piece of fabric that was made for runways. Made for thin, beautiful women. A woman that I wanted to be. One that I was becoming.

I uprooted the dress from its lonely life away from its thin, glamorous friends in my mother’s closet and slipped it on over my head.

It was too big.

I held the back of the waist, taking it in with my fist. The girl who stared back from my mirror looked like she should be wearing this dress. The dress still had life on her, even if she was dying.

Her body had become desirable. Pale and thin. One that people would pay to see wearing fancy clothes. I had changed myself into something else. Something pretty.

My head started to spin. I had to sit down before the fireworks overtook my eyes. They’d begun claiming my vision even when my eyes were still open.


My boyfriend did not tell me I was attractive until we’d been together for many months. In the back of my head, I wondered if he thought I was attractive at all. He did not know me when I was thin. He only knew me with thick hair and long fingernails that never touched the back of my throat.

He told me he loved me before he told me I was pretty. I could not fathom one without the other, but for him, maybe it was possible.

He told me I was pretty when I  pretty at all. I was laying across his bed, sick with bronchitis. My face was clean of makeup and my hair was greasy after days of neglect.

“Don’t look at me,” I said. “I’m ugly right now.”

“You’re beautiful,” he said, sounding confused as if he had no idea why I would think any other way. As if I had no reason to think differently. As if I should have always known.

I closed my eyes. There was no explosion of white, no clapping. Just silent, bricked blackness.

I could feel my heart beat in my chest. I could almost see it behind my eyelids. It moved through my body, flowing under the brown skin that hid the blue of my veins completely. I listened to it against the blackness.

The steady beat pulsated under my skin, in my scalp, through my toes.

I pressed my fingers against my eyelids and made the explosions myself. I watched them until I felt wetness against my fingers, trickling down my cheeks.

They were just how I remembered them. They looked just how they did when my body was broken and tired and cold and frail and foreign.

When I opened my eyes, they were still flashing behind everything I saw. I didn’t close them again.

I didn’t want to see them anymore.

Header photograph © Mane Hovhannisyan.

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