“Walk straighter!” Mom shouted, ending our pleasant sunlit stroll.
“Get your hand out of your hair,” she snapped, reacting to my habit.
“Where is your hair?” she asked, poking the top of my forehead.
And that was just Thanksgiving.
I’d recently graduated from arts school at NYU and took a teaching job straight off Craigslist’s suckers section. So I was dangerously close to having to move back to Staten Island – to the old Disney bed sheets, pet allergies, and, of course, my mother. My whole life she had been critical, but, newly single, she was getting even better at it. I started hearing her in my dreams. One time I woke up punching the laptop screen beside me, cracking it into a spider-web. My sister’s Mom-rule of “never alone in a room” suddenly sounded like enlightenment itself.
As a gay Jewish son, though, I grew up close with Mom, twice over. We shared European vacations and anxieties, traded gossip and guilt trips, went to musicals and extremes. We also competed in our favorite thing of all: trivia shows, counting correct answers on our fingers.
I could never separate from her totally – but, at 25 years old, I had to do something.
“And what would you do with the million?” a producer for “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” asked me.
My mouth sucked dry. I was at an open call at Harlem’s Apollo Theater, with one chance to perform. “Clone my dog in South Korea,” I said, automatically.
The drowsy man blinked and smiled, leaned over the sturdy table. “What if you only had 24 hours?”
“Buy a manatee,” I blurted, earning a larger grin. “I, um, love chubby things.”
He leapt up and scooted me into the next room, big camera lens staring.
“How many perpendicular bisectors in a triangle?”
“What’s the soul of—”
The honcho in plaid winked and said I did great, beyond great. I didn’t really believe him – things never worked when I wanted them too much. I was also a terrible interviewee, having once told a potential employer, “I’m stable now.”
But this time, apparently, something had changed, because three days later it popped up on my phone – the number for “Millionaire.” Since the age of nine, I’d fantasized about being in the hot seat. Now I only had one thought while covering my mouth, jumping up and down: I’m saved.
“No, I’ll be away on vacation. You can’t!” Mom said on the phone while at her job selling furniture at Macy’s. “This is the worst thing that has ever happened.”
I thought I’d misheard her. She was the first person I called when I got to my apartment.
“The worst thing?” My moment?
I hung up, once I realized I could. Then the emails started: announcing her decision to cut her Florida trip short, asking what she would have to wear, saying she was coming and that was her “final answer, ha!”
My email back: “I’m not so sure about this.”
I struggled to press send.
Why hadn’t she even congratulated me before focusing immediately on what was wrong? Her uncensored negativity worried me more than ever. It was the precise thing I had to block out during my audition for “Millionaire,” and what I was thinking at the time – be relaxed, confident, and unapologetic – ultimately was what got me picked as a contestant.
My fingers kept typing. “If anyone does come to the show, it’ll be someone who can control themselves, what they say,” I wrote, “who I can just see in the audience and smile.”
She didn’t respond. I calmed a bit and busied myself, giving the production team pictures of my wardrobe and answering more questionnaires they provided that were clearly intended to spur show-time banter. I told the producers I have a sunken chest, that I’m jewelry-phobic, that I still talk to Carrie, my imaginary friend – all without shame or embarrassment. It wasn’t until days later that I dialed Mom again, still having not heard back. Maybe she was respecting my boundaries? I thought as the phone rang.
“After all I’ve done for you,” she said icily upon pick-up.
I couldn’t catch my breath.
Self-doubt raged for weeks. I knew I had to make “Millionaire” go smoothly, that there was no back-up plan. I also knew that having a clear mind in this nerve-shattering game was pivotal. But holed up in my room watching as many episodes as I could, I saw so many mothers in the audiences. One million-dollar winner, Kevin, called his mom right after to say, “I chose the right parents.” I had to second-guess if this was the right place to draw the line with my mother.
I called her often to check in. Sometimes she tried to bargain. “I’ll be good,” she said. I deflected, and asked what she was eating for dinner.
“Oh…chicken,” Mom said like she was terminal, “with…peas…”
I smashed my hand up and down my face. I reminded myself: I’m an adult, it’s my choice.
As the taping approached, though, I wrestled with one phrase that kept bubbling up over and over – I owe this woman my life. Accepting my sexuality, the rides to friends’ houses, all the Happy Meals she bought me when I was little…
All right, maybe I was just weak.
But if I was going to buckle, she at least had to earn it by verbalizing something positive, something to counter all the rest. I could’ve angled for an I love you (I knew she did), or even a simple I hear you (I knew she didn’t). Instead, something else flew out:
“Are you even proud of me?” I asked, trembling into the phone.
I wanted her approval. I always have.
She paused. She never paused.
“Of course,” she exhaled, finally. Too convincingly? “I’m very proud of you.”
“OK, you can come,” I said, hanging up before the moment was ruined. I collapsed on my bed – overwhelmed, surprised, hopeful I had done the right thing.
The big day arrived, and I was a wreck. I practiced way too much trivia, planned too much strategy. But soon I was called down to the Midtown Manhattan set where I stepped – well, spiraled – out onto the stage. (I meant it when I said it was my moment.) Then, there was host Meredith Vieira, her crystal blue eyes, and it all zoomed by.
I “banked” $9,300 in just a few questions, cash that was mine, really mine, as long as I didn’t get an answer wrong. It was exhilarating – months of rent, a safety net while looking for a better job! Then I “asked the audience” something embarrassingly easy in hindsight, about aqueducts. I “skipped” another about Renoir I should have known. In a flash came the end of the road, none of my lifelines left, and the hardest question yet:
“A Norwegian mountain serves as a storage facility for the world’s what, in the event of global catastrophe?”
My hands slipped on the podium. I didn’t know what to do. My strategy dictated I would take the risk, answer instead of walk away. It was multiple choice, a one-in-four chance of moving on no matter what. It was worth it. Yet, this question was so alien to me. I pictured my mother fidgeting in the darkness somewhere, having her opinion. A producer ran up to hurry me along. I had to choose.
So, I closed my eyes, and like in the audition, I trusted in myself. Then instantly, miraculously, I understood the answer. It was “C. Seeds.” It had to be. Thousands of hours of game shows told me I was right, my newfound confidence told me I was right, and I realized, fully, that this was how everything would change for me. All that was left was to open my mouth and—
“Walk away!” a female voice shouted, unauthorized from the audience.
Huh? Should I?
Suddenly I was echoing it, like I had no idea: “I’m going to walk away.”
“Is that a final?” Meredith asked.
Um, “That’s a final,” I said.
Instant regret. The music changed. The lights dimmed. “Seeds was the right answer,” Meredith announced.
Right. And I would have tripled my amount, and won a trip to Fantasyland, and continued playing for the million. “Thank you so much,” I said, and took off in the wrong direction.
Months later I was still beating myself up – for not taking the risk, for not listening to that voice inside. I imagined on repeat the beautiful ending, the confetti blowing. Yes, I got to keep the $9,300. But I did eventually have to leave my job and move home. The money just wasn’t enough to fix my life.
Of course, I was grateful that I even had a home to move back to. But I was scared. I already felt like a failure, and didn’t know how my confidence would handle daily nitpicking. Luckily, I had already learned my lesson from the audition: Mom was irrelevant. I could control her voice in my head, and from knowing that, slowly, things did get better with her. Even when she went too far, I just thought about how she had said that I “played it perfectly” after the show. She put up pictures of Meredith and me in the house, along with “Millionaire” magnets on the fridge. Mom even started saying she was proud of me, now that she’d gotten used to the sound. I could finally, like my email said, truly look at her and smile…
But I knew better than to ask if that voice in the audience had been hers.