The Woman Who Invented A Face Guard for Entering Southern Italy

Flavor Flav is perhaps the only person who possessed even half as much contempt for having his face touched. This is the only thing that kept Fiorella fascinated enough to continue watching Flavor of Love as it continued to jump the shark in 2007 after being on for just a season. She had been cursed with Italian blood, of the Southern persuasion. But she fought against it her entire life as her mother would “force her” (“poor you” people who didn’t understand Italy mocked) to go back to the old country, specifically Cosenza in Calabria, where the bulk of Mariangela’s brothers and sisters still remained, she herself being the only one capable of falling for an American man (the others couldn’t possibly fathom their sister’s attraction to anything circumcised). Despite “fleeing”–even if no one in the United States could possibly fathom wanting to leave Italy–she always returned each year around the same time. And as the years passed, she eventually began to return solely with Fiorella in tow, born in 1991, around the period Darren (her husband’s perhaps overly white-bred name) started to ascend the ranks of the corporate ladder, all of Mariangela’s hard work to put him through law school with her odds and ends jobs (primarily consisting of sewing and cleaning) finally paying off in a very literal way–though, of course, it meant Darren had much less free time to spend with his new daughter or to join Mariangela on her annual pilgrimage. Her family was somewhat scandalized by his overt absence, but quickly became placated at the sight of Fiorella and her plush, virgin cheeks. That virginity, alas, was summarily decimated over the course of July 1991, at which point at least half of the population of Calabria had seemed to have a go at Fiorella’s defenseless cheek bones. Mariangela herself didn’t see anything strange in the custom, welcoming her family and friends’ affections as a sign of her own “success” in birthing something so adorable. After all, it was what she had been primed for her entire life whilst growing up in Cosenza: to be a madre, a cannonball birthing machine with the superhuman nurturing skills to keep up with the production. That she already knew Fiorella would be her only child as Darren expressly stated he didn’t want any others (she surmised this was because he was secretly afraid it would not be a boy, and he didn’t want to take the risk of having another girl) was not information she needed to dole out to anyone. She would let them believe that Fiorella was to be the first of many. A Calabrian-American army. And in her own mind, maybe she wanted to permit herself this sense of denial, this faint hope that perhaps the army could come to fruition. But the truth was, Darren called all the shots. Mariangela kept the male-female dynamic strictly Italian that way.

On the way back from that first trip, Mariangela felt a great sense of satisfaction–accomplishment–with the reaction that Fiorella was lavished with…that is, until she noticed the severity of the discoloration on Fiorella’s cheeks, a strange combination of red, blue and purple. She covered the sight up with the hand-made blanket her sister, Giovanna, had knitted for her while she was there. After all, now that they were entering U.S. soil, she wouldn’t be surprised if she somehow got accused of child abuse, so touchy and prone to accusation were these Americans–particularly the ones that worked in any kind of “enforcing” position, like customs. But she passed through with ease, not giving Fiorella’s bruised cheeks a second thought, though the haunting remembrance would remain with Fiorella all her life as her first major trauma, often having inexplicable nightmares of a series of silhouetted hands huddled around her in a frenzy to grab and milk like an udder. It took her until she was roughly thirteen years old (at the beginning of those peak angst years) to fully fathom just where the recurring nightmare came from.

By this time, Darren had absconded in favor of an equally as white-bred woman, one he’d met while interviewing her as a witness for a case pertaining to extortion. No, she could not cook as well as Mariangela, but at least she was less fiery, a “zen” yoga instructor on the Upper West Side in fact. Not so temperamental–and that’s ultimately what supplanted all other “alluring” qualities of a female, even the ones pertaining to culinary mastery that could therefore instill tastebud ecstasy (the most powerful form of any ecstasy, in all honesty). Mariangela did not take the slight very well, and most days after school Fiorella found her crouched in her rocking chair in the corner knitting and watching whatever schlock was on RAI (Darren agreed to continue paying all the bills, including satellite cable, for his insolence toward the sanctity of marriage). The apartment was packed to the gills with sweaters. It was summer. And they were soon due to make their trip to Cosenza. Fiorella bristled at the thought. There was so much she would rather be doing–plus her best friend, Georgia, had said she could get them into the MTV VMAs if Fiorella could scrounge up the cash to get to Miami. Fiorella knew all she had to do was ask Darren, for he was feeling so guilty these days about having abandoned his position as her father. The problem was Mariangela, who was vehement that Fiorella not only accompany her, but also keep her mouth shut about the impending divorce. There was no greater source of shame to Mariangela than having failed at the one thing she had been told she was born to do: wife. She wasn’t doing much better at the companion role of mother either, if Fiorella’s lack of enthusiasm toward her was any indication. And it was more than just the requisite vitriol that came with being an adolescent–it was as though Fiorella wanted to stare daggers at her to the point of death by a mere glance. She couldn’t figure out what she had done wrong, where she had made a faux pas in her carefully followed trajectory. It made her wonder if she should have simply resisted the urge to fall in love with anyone outside of the Calabrese confines. She never should have visited New York with her uncle that fateful fall of ’89. Travel does not expand horizons so much as eventually make you realize how limited yours are.

When the trip rolled around and Fiorella had not been able to convince Mariangela to let her stay behind to see the precious VMAs unaccompanied, she started to panic. Feel strange symptoms, primarily an uncontrollable pulsing in both cheeks in a prepared stress response to what was about to bombard her. What she couldn’t stop no matter how she squirmed this way and that in a futile attempt to dodge those squeezing hands. And since her Italian remained limited and, short of swatting the hands away in an outright fury (which would be the ultimate cultural affront), there was nothing to be said or done to prevent it. Thus, her whole life long, she withstood the physical abuse masquerading as a show of affection.

But as far as she was concerned, it had to come to an end–by any means necessary. So in 2011, at the age of twenty, Fiorella decided it was time to take some drastic action. To resist the bizarre Italian cheek-pinching movement that had plagued her. And she was going to use her overpriced college education that her father was paying for as a means to do it, for applying to a scholarship that would award the money for the most innovative invention proposal. Since she had enrolled in Columbia for engineering, she was expected to come up with something truly brilliant. Brilliance, her Italian roots had taught her, stemmed from simplicity. So it was that she got to designing the prototype for a practically invisible for its thinness plastic mask that could perfectly mold and bend against even the roughest Italian woman’s cheek pinching (for, sadly, it was true that the women inflicted most of the pain, with the men more prone to cheek kissing perhaps more than they ought–but the mask would help prevent against that as well). The grant funding would provide for this unique plastic and the one-time use glue needed to affix it for a day spent traveling in Italy. While she knew it was likely to be a long shot for its cultural specificity, she also knew that the number of Italian Americans in New York was greater than anywhere else, and that Columbia had a tendency to favor all New York-centric enterprises.

So it was that, against many odds, Fiorella won the money necessary to further develop her project, which she loosely titled Sfacciato 2000 (a play on the cheekiness of Italians grabbing at your cheeks without even asking). Of course, the American market would later label it the Face Guard, an entity that eventually only became used on the spy circuit in deflecting facial recognition technology. It was an invention that, thus, made her millions of dollars. However, there was no price on her ability to be able to walk through any given part of the boot without having her face “actually” touched, therefore evading all bruisings, wrinkle-givings and pimple flare-ups. And, when considering how vain Italians are, it’s something rather remarkable that they do this to others. Then again, maybe it’s precisely because it’s the old doing it to the young that lends more sense to it. They want to rub some of the youth out of everyone else so it can be an entire country filled solely with an aging demographic and the according antiquated mode of thinking that led Mariangela to ignore her daughter’s success as an inventor and instead demand, “Have you found a nice boy to marry yet?” Fiorella paused before ignoring the query as a response, wondering if she could invent something to forever deflect that question.

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