Your parents don’t know Leonardo from Michelangelo. But like every other good famiglia on the block, they’ve got a chipped porcelain Last Supper plate hanging over the kitchen table. A plastic Pietà—purchased at the 1964 World’s Fair—squats on top of the behemoth Zenith TV. And a warped canvas Mona Lisa smiles down from the dining room wall as you eat your fancy Sunday macaroni.
Since Mona Lisa hangs from a single nail without a frame, sometimes she leans to the left and other times to the right. A destra, a sinistra. A sinistra, a destra. Either way it doesn’t matter. Mona Lisa creeps you out as much as the silver Jesus nailed to the wooden cross hung above the front door to keep evil spirits from entering the house. Jesus is skinny and Mona is fat. But at least Jesus is polite enough to look away when you steal another chocolate from the Whitman’s Sampler that’s supposed to be reserved for guests. Mona Lisa always has her dark eyes on you.
Mona sounds like un pianto del bambino, a baby’s cry. Lisa reminds you of the only non-Italian girl in second grade—Lisa Ford, who has hair so blond that all the dark-haired girls surround her in the lavatory and fight for a chance to braid and comb it. Mona Lisa’s dark hair looks like a bad wig. Her forehead is high as a nun’s wimple. Her deep-set brow-less eyes remind you of basset hounds.
You don’t want to look like Mona Lisa. You don’t want to sit there and sorta-smile and watch people eat their Sunday ravioli. You want to be the one who gets to paint her. You want to be Leonardo sitting at the easel, dipping a brush into a palette of oil paints and shading the background blue and gray and mysterious purple.
You would give anything to be an artist and live in Rome where the hand of God reaches out to meet the hand of Adam on the ceiling of the Cappella Sistina. In Rome, you’re sure even the pigeon poop smells better than the cacca you have to scrub off the window ledges here in America.
Oh, why did your family ever come to this country where the only real Italian things are fakes? You want to flee from the plastic Christ on the Pietà and apostles on the chipped Last Supper plate. This house is a jail and Mona Lisa the warden. She stares at you. She is watching ovunque vada, qualunque cosa faccia—wherever you go, whatever you do—and from her gaze you will never escape.
Rita Ciresi is author of the novels Bring Back My Body to Me, Pink Slip, Blue Italian,and Remind Me Again Why I Married You, and two story collections, Sometimes I Dream in Italian and Mother Rocket. She is professor of English at the University of South Florida, a faculty mentor for the Bay Path University MFA program in creative nonfiction, and fiction editor of 2 Bridges Review.