by Michael Kimber
I'm in my incredibly tiny room where the white walls look blood splattered (odd art project of a previous tenant) and everything is covered in books and ginger candy wrappers. To call it claustrophobic would be a compliment. I live in this closet-sized space for the purpose of saving money so that my girlfriend can move to Toronto and not have to worry about money as she sets up her business as a massage therapist. Until then I'll live in this blood-splattered womb, my excellent roommates being my only consolation.
I'm currently on the phone with my friend Winter Tekenos-Levy.
We're talking about a story we're working on together. Winter wrote a first draft and I tried my hand at a second. It's a comedy where a girl has to tell her boyfriend she has an STD.
We go over her notes. They are small but important. Winter is an amazing writer with a talent for comedy.
Winter and I became close friends at a writer's group hosted by our friend Matt Corluka. She wrote the funniest stories in the group and I'm pretty addicted to anyone who can make me laugh like she does.
The first time I met her was at a producer's conference. I noticed a placard on her shirt that said 'development' and proceeded to pitch her a series I made up on the spot. She looked at me quite calmly and said, "Dude, I'm in the same conference as you. We met this morning."
A week before the phone call with Winter, we got drunk at my birthday party and decided we should work on something together. I liked her STD comedy and wanted to play with it. My writing partner Elias would direct. Our friend Tabitha would produce. This phone call is about finalizing the script so we can go into pre-production.
I love talking to Winter; we have a shared obsession with the obscene, Kanye West and Pusha T.
We start chitchatting about ideas we have and different stories we had gone over at the writer's group.
She tells me that she has decided to abandon her sex worker sitcom.
"The more I thought about it," she says, "the less funny it was probably going to be. I mean if it was realistic... and I like don't actually know about any of that stuff. Pretty fucking privileged."
"I can see how it might be a little dark," I agree.
"Just a little," Winter concedes.
And then I remember a conversation I had with my girlfriend about professional cuddlers, which at the time seemed a little bit like sex workers lite. "It'd be cool to do a show about like a professional cuddler. It's a real job. You ever look into it?"
She immediately begins looking it up on her laptop. Quickly my obsession with professional cuddlers becomes hers.
In the conversation it becomes clear that this could be a web series. I suggest mimicking the structure of High Maintenance where each episode focuses on the client instead of the cuddler. She points me towards a video online of a man who hires a sex worker to perform the mundane tasks of a girlfriend such as getting into arguments about cereal and telling him that she loves him. I suggest getting in touch with our friend Elias. After all, we did have that blood oath thing at my birthday party.
"Call that motherfucker," says Winter.
I get a text from my girlfriend.
"I gotta go. Gotta call the girl."
"Give her a cuddle."
"Call. She doesn't live here."
"Phone cuddle then."
"Tell your boyfriend whaddup from Kimber."
By the end of the second episode of Just Cuddle, both Winter and I will have broken up with our long-term partners.
We'll have breakfasts and bar nights to celebrate our newfound independence and we'll get closer. We'll check in with each other for updates during that time where you go a little insane, just to make sure the other person is doing okay. And we'll celebrate together when life is no longer about being heartbroken.
And she'll star in Just Cuddle. And we'll depend on her excellent notes. But that happens later.
For now, just relish in how a comedy about an STD sowed the seeds for a show called Just Cuddle.
Elias Campbell and I are in Trinity Bellwoods.
Characteristically we aren't drinking beers, playing Hacky Sack or smoking weed. My laptop is balanced on my thighs and I'm overdressed for the atypically sunny April weather. Elias is munching on a Clif Bar and leaned up against a tree.
First let me explain that my best friend looks a lot like Justin Trudeau and acts nothing like him. Elias' face is an extremely easy-to-read book. When he likes a person he beams. When he smells bullshit in a conversation, you can see him fighting back a scowl. He's down to the bones honest and drawn to people with a similar temperament. When I first became friends with him I was eight months jobless and feeling like I was destined to become a failure. Working with him changed what I thought I was capable of.
It's a rare friend who can make you regain confidence in yourself.
Elias is giving me notes on the STD comedy and pretending like he cares. He wants to make something and this might do. But what he wants more than anything is to get started on something big; something that'll really test him and push him to become better at his craft. He's excited about Just Cuddle, which I informed him of via text the night before. He's so excited he's about to name it.
"I think we have to make a choice," says Elias. "If we want to start shooting something I'd rather do the professional cuddling thing you were talking about. It has a great hook and I can already sort of see it."
When Elias has a vision, he's difficult to refuse. You can almost feel it in his tone. Something is happening and you want to be a part of it.
"Given any thought to a name?" he asks.
I shrug. The Cuddler was my first idea. I think a serial killer on The Shield was called that. So that's probably an association you don't want to have.
"Just Cuddle," he says. He smiles at me when he says it. Like it's a joke. Like it's so good I can't refuse it.
"Like it's not sex," I say. "Just Cuddles."
"Just Cuddle," I say again. I don't quite know how to explain it mouth-feel wise, but it feels like a thing. Like a real thing.
And as hipsters bond over PBR on the first nice day after a long winter, we talk about what we want Just Cuddle to be. And in the conversation we decide that we want to tell stories about people trying to break out of their loneliness and connect. We want the stories to be about what compels someone to reach out to a professional cuddler.
As we talk I type down notes.
"We need to make this soon," says Elias. "You think we could be shooting this in like six weeks?"
I nod my head as if to say anything's possible. Elias takes that for full by in. He doesn't let an idea for a film stay just an idea for long.
Winter texts me.
She's down for meeting us for dinner.
We get into Elias' car and drive to Salt Wine Bar. There's no parking. His frustration with this situation amuses me to no end.
When I break up with my girlfriend in a few months, Elias will help me find a new apartment. He will help me put my IKEA furniture together. And we'd work on the series until it was a real thing. And in a time I was particularly lonely, I'd be able to focus my energy in writing.
Making pain into beauty is pretty much the only fair trade you get from dedicating your life to making art. I don't really know how people live with their pain without being able to make something out of it. Writing has both healed me and distanced me from everyone in my life as my addiction to it deepened until my sources of pain and pleasure dried up. So determined that my life would just be about art, I have sometimes gone without people for weeks at a time. With Elias, I realized that with the right people I could make better art than I could by myself.
That's later. Right now Elias is cursing the parking lot for having no empty spaces.
Dinner is ridiculously expensive. Like insane.
We order everything and it's fucking delicious. If you haven't gone to Salt Wine Bar you should really consider trying it. It can be quite affordable if you don't act like you're out for your last meal before the gallows.
I don't really remember what we talked about. Most likely Winter teased Elias because she does that every time. Elias and Winter have a relationship based on being almost total opposites. Winter is funny and extroverted and has this incredible silliness she's waiting to unleash. Elias is far more serious and is a self-styled curmudgeon, but Winter has this way of making him laugh like a child. And when Winter seeks out wise counsel, she turns to Elias. Though if I remember the night correctly, she mainly just made fun of his beard.
I think we briefly talked about the series and possible deadlines, but mostly we just talked.
And I remembered a brunch we had months before where Winter and Elias were talking about how scared they were that they weren't going to accomplish anything in their lives. How desperately they wanted to get into a writer's room. And I remember thinking they're so young...
They still have dreams.
I had gotten into the habit of convincing myself that my dream would just be living in the same city as the girl I loved. And I argued with myself why it wasn't important to be a writer. I don't know how the math came together but it basically came down to this: If I wanted to become an adult, I had to give up my goal of making films. Which was not altogether different math than my ex-girlfriend had. Where she would have to move to a new city she didn't like and start from the beginning all over again with no client list and little in the way of savings.
And at this table, I could feel the sense of fear and malaise exiting my body. I wasn't going to accept that I couldn't have what I wanted. It was there that I laid the groundwork for the break-up several months later. When I decided I couldn't leave Toronto and she decided she couldn't move here. It was at that table I decided I was going to take a chance and risk it all with my friends. And a great woman would leave my life as a result. And we'd both go in the directions we were meant to go.
Sometimes doing what you love is more important than being with someone who loves you.
She'd use her talents as a massage therapist to make people able to enjoy their life without pain. I'd use my pain to make something I'm incredibly proud of with the people around this table.
On April 5th we will release the trailer for Just Cuddle. On April 18th, we'll release the first episode.
Three days before that, Winter will leave her job at a television production company to put it all on the line to get into a writer's room. She loves the people she works with but she wants to pursue her dream. They told her they believed in her. Very few people are able to risk everything for what they want most in the world.
But that's Winter.
A friend I get to have dinner with. Someone who inspired me to be better.
Tune in to see her knock your fucking socks off.