Melvin and Me

written by Michael Kimber

Over a weekend I've been filmed singing opera in my shower, acted out a weed-induced conspiracy theory freak out and journeyed into the heart of loneliness over 50 hours of non-stop filming with my best friends. We're currently in the hardest part of my character's journey. Melvin meets his mother for dinner. "People like us are going to be alone," says Nanci Pach, playing my character's mother. "You're just going to have to get used to it, Melvy." 

Nanci is very good in her role. Not like my mother in the least way. More like the voice in your head that tells you that no one will ever love you and says it's doing it for your own good. 

I feel this wet sensation gathered in my chest, it spreads to my throat, to become a weight under my eyes. It's like two rivers converging. My own experience of loneliness and Melvin's sense of rejection become one. I'm showing more than I know how to show in life. And I'm crying. And Nanci takes my hand and as a final humiliation offers to purchase a cuddler for my New Year's Eve. 

"Cut," says Elias. "We're going to take a break." 

I catch my breath. 

I can see that he's excited. I am too. 

We got it. 

"You were crying. That means you're a good actor," says Siamak, our sound guy and general magic man as he hands me a purloined Kleenex. "It takes a good actor to cry." 

"Yeah?" I ask, as I wipe tears out of my eyes. 

Siamak puts his hand on my shoulder and squeezes it. He's comforting me. Alarmed by the intensity of feeling I just expressed. He's seeing things about me that a hundred long conversations during filming didn't reveal. A fictional portrayal has erased the distance I practice. And he's reaching out to me to show that it's okay. 

"Really good, bro" he says. He stops. "If you don't have anything to do on New years this year give me a call. We'll have fun." 

****

Words are incredibly powerful. 

Search for the genesis of the worst things you feel about yourself and you'll find the one time someone in your life said it. It'll be just a moment in a galaxy of well-intentioned words and it got past all of your defences and worked itself into your memory. Words can make fears into facts. 

As a result I've always carefully chosen my words. 

Hoping to maximize the amount of happiness I could create in the people around me. I can see what people want to hear. Sometimes I can see what they need to hear. When I show vulnerability it is almost always constructed to make other people more comfortable with the parts of themselves they have difficult living with. As a result very few people actually know me. 

Melvin has a different defence mechanism. He says the worst thing possible almost all of the time. He struggles with a feeling that I think most of us have felt at one time or another. Where he thinks he is uniquely unable to form human connection. 

How did my glorious acting career begin? 

Elias, Winter and I were doing our first auditions for Just Cuddle and we had people read for the part of Melvin. 

Melvin's role was simple. His friend Frederik cried at work. Melvin wants to prevent his sociopathic boss from firing his friend. 

Elias got me to read for the part. 

He then got me to accept the role. 

It was also Elias who approached me about doing an episode about Melvin. 

I can say now that it's over that I was incredibly nervous about taking such a large role in Just Cuddle. All the actors involved in the series had knocked it out of the park. During it, Winter had transformed into some type of movie star. I didn't want to ruin this amazing thing by injecting myself into it. 

Elias reassured me that he would be able to get where I needed to go. 

The weekend was scary because there's not a lot of room to hide when the camera is pointed at you. There's no being perfect. There's only being Melvin. And to be Melvin meant exposing myself.

****

I'm at a hockey game with my best friend Jordi. 

We're 12. 

The smell of hotdogs and popcorn. You can hear the sound of skates on ice.

The cheering of the crowd who are very enthusiastic about something I to this day don't give a shit about. 

I came to Halifax Moosehead games to be with my dad and Jordi. 

I remember feeling like my mind was going a little too fast. I'd been at acting class at Neptune Theater School in an attempt to make some 13-year-old girls fall in love with me. The experience had me feeling high strung and confused. 

Maybe it was a first touch with the anxiety I'd experience as I moved into puberty. Whatever it was I couldn't find the right words. 

He sees me struggling. 

"You don't have to be funny with me, " he says. "Just hang out. That's all you need to do." A sense of relief floods throughout my entire body. 

Shortly after a goal is scored. 

I use the screeching hysteria to loudly scream my feelings of joy in front of my childhood best friend and father in a way they'll never be able to understand. 

****

I'm getting cooking lessons from Phil Miner. 

It's 2009. 

I'm 25. 

I've fallen into a depression that is immediately visible to even a casual observer. 

Anxiety is a normal background emotion. Like bass for music. Sometimes the music disappears and your whole reality can be composed of very short harsh sentences that become the story you tell yourself about yourself. That repeat. 

Until you don't want to think anymore. 

Phil and I became close when he agreed to edit a fantasy novel I'd been working on since I was 18. One that had spelling errors and pounds of weed hidden within its margins. Over 13 months we meet every week for at least 12 hours. He finished a book of poetry. I finally finished the book. An outside source read the book and said it was good. I cried. Because I realized I might be able to do the thing I'd been trying to do for my whole life. 

And we lost touch for a little while.  

Until I began to come apart. 

Phil and I had great conversations. He drank red bull and memorized quotations from great literature that he'd recite from memory. 

We laughed a lot. 

He made me feel smart. 

There are no good lines of dialogue in our most important moments. Just recipes. Because I don't know hot cook and want to learn. 

We are in his kitchen in Halifax, Nova Scotia. it's been three days since I slept. 

My ability to pay attention is completely gone. 

Laughter is the audience at a sitcom taping. Robotic and inserted where you would see a normal person laugh.

He carefully explains how to make salmon using the stove and spices from around his kitchen. He repeats himself. He knows I can't hear him the first time. I promised my girlfriend I would learn to cook.

He's careful with me. He doesn't demand anything besides that I come over and hang out. Even if I don't have anything to offer. Usually I just listen to him and nod every now and then.

I don't remember how to make that salmon. I still suck at cooking. But I remember the time in that kitchen. When I had nothing to offer and Phil had recipes.

Friends like Phil keep me there until the music comes back.

****

After my depression into 2009 I recovered. At first I told everyone I met that I had anxiety. Felt like I had to. To warn them. Then gradually it became background noise.

In November 3rd, 2013, I put up a post about how the war was done.

I no longer considered myself as someone who had anxiety or needed to deal with my demons through posting on a public blog. Colony of Losers was dead. I'd just finished my first short film. I was going to be a filmmaker.

November 20th, 2013, I was in a house fire.

We got outside. I thought we were safe. Until I found out that my basement neighbour was still inside. I met her boyfriend in the alley. I grabbed a shovel to break the glass of her window. The glass shattered. We screamed into her window.

She didn't wake up. The ambulance came sometime after.

I held her boyfriend as he screamed in the alleyway as we waited for help. I watched news crews film her as she was taken from the scene. 

I wanted to be able to do something. 

I couldn't. 

She died later in the week. 

In situations like this, everyone has an expectation of what they would do. What they could do. There was nothing I could do. It took me a long time to understand that. 

And gradually I stopped talking about the fire. And sometimes I barely remember what it was like living in that house. The house we called Hotel Internationale because everyone who lived there came from another part of the world. Where I heard dozens of languages and Toronto became my home. 

It's two years later. 

I'm in my office working on a power point presentation. 

The people who own our building are testing the fire alarm. My coworkers are slow to exit the building. For them it's an inconvenience. 

I try to remain calm. But I notice my hand starting to shake. 

I make my way out of the building. My best friend at work, Zamaan Sunderji accompanies me. I'm okay. 

Until we can't find Stephanie Wu. And it gets worse.

And I guess I'm thinking there might be a real fire and maybe she won't get out. And she's from another country and there were people I lived with who were from another country and dots connect and... 

I start looking at the gathered crowd. Trying to find her. 

And I can feel the panic manifesting from a whisper into a klaxon. 

And I see her.

Steph's ok. 

And I have to walk. 

Fast. 

Because I know I'm not going to be able to keep it together. 

My foremost desire is that no one should see me like this. Apparently when people are choking they often die when they go into another room because they're embarrassed to be seen like this. 

And they are coming with me. 

Turning a corner to get as far away from work as I can. And I start crying. Really hard. Zamaan puts his hand on my shoulder. Stephanie sits down and joins him. Patting me gently. Having no idea what to do. 

I cry hard and they try to help me even though I don't explain what i'm going through. They don't know what to say but they sit with me. 

Protecting me from whatever is happening inside me. 

****

It's sort of embarrassing to talk about my attempt to seduce what would become my closest friend into becoming my writing partner. 

Prior to our meeting I had come up with five different pitches I thought might appeal to him. I had even gone so far as to practice said pitches before I met up with him at Nirvana on College street. 

Elias and I met at a producing conference about year before. My friend Thomas Pepper had expressed admiration for Elias' writing on his previous web series, World Away. I was intrigued. 

I was 30, still accepting money from my parents to pay rent and I had been unemployed for seven months. I'm going to offer to pay for our meal when the cheque comes. Paying for anything at this point sort of hurt. But you have to appear confident. Especially when you aren't. 

"Hey man... how's it going?" 

His voice is warm. Comforting. I'm stooped and he has this confident demeanour and upright posture. 

I immediately fall into trying to impress him. 

Imagine a date where someone laughs at every joke you tell. Imagine a person who's trying to sell you on a pyramid scheme he doesn't really believe in. I'm desperate and I can see he's not buying it. Because he has a tell. That is immediate and obvious. If he can't relate to a story or doesn't see his internal logic the doubt is written all over his face. 

I talk faster.

I'm Melvin. 

He picks up the cheque and makes a vague promise that at some point we might write something together. 

****

We are in Elias' car. 

On the highway. 

We've traveled a million miles since that day at Nirvana. 

We've laughed thousands of times, eaten a lot of brunch, filmed eight projects and we've just finished shooting the end of Just Cuddle's season. 

Thousands of hours of talking and working and filming have gone into making sure that we had something we could all be proud of. Winter has astounded us with her acting. Literally moving us both to tears. We've done the best work we were capable of at this time in our lives. You don't get to say that many times. 

If someone picks up the show we make another episode. If not this time of our lives is over and we'll find more things to make. I feel nothing and everything in bursts as he picks up his speed and turns up the music. 

We talk about the series. The people we got to meet. Our favourite moments. And somehow we start talking about Melvin. 

"I wonder if people are going to think you're Melvin," he says. "That our friendship is actually like this." 

I instantly argue with him. That they would be missing the point. I'm not Melvin. And I start to explain why. That my mother sent me a smiley face text and wished me a happy New Year and would never speak to me like Melvin's mother. Elias was away on New Years on a trip with his girlfriend. We didn't fight about it. My own New Years just wasn't very filmic. Staring at a computer. That even the story I wrote about the experience missed crucial details. Like talking to the beautiful Hannah Whitmore and laughing with her over the phone as she wished me a happy New Year. Like getting closer to Lauren Edwards who shares her life with David. Because art is often a simplification of something you can't distill in a good story. The power of storytelling is in limiting the drama to a carefully established focal point. 

"It's not that," he says. "I know you aren't Melvin. It's that I feel like you have this sense of shame about feeling so lonely. Like you need to defend it to me, clarify that you're not actually that person. I've been lonely, man. Really lonely, like feeling as if I didn't have anyone. And that's okay. There are a lot of people who can't express what that's like. You can. I think people are really going to connect to Melvin. Because everyone feels like that sometimes." 

"I get that," I say. "I'm not Melvin." 

We speed into the night. Lord Huron playing. 

The road is lit with car lights. Fireworks exploding on the road in front of their vehicles as they race somewhere they have to go. 

The city becomes visible. 

A new adventure is coming. 

The next chapter is like every adventure. Where you carry your life with you in the belief that it will disappear and you'll become something different. And if you're lucky you learn to accept a little more of who you are. 

Every episode of Just Cuddle blows me out of the water. Melvin is special to me. 

Because I think that when you watch it you get to see me through Elias' eyes. And when you watch it you can feel this gentleness. This utter and supreme sense of care with the character. The same care he treats all of our characters. Only it's different. 

Watching this film I feel like the world gets to see the things I don't show people. The things no one wants to show people. And it's okay. Because it's told through the eyes of one of my closest friends. 

You can watch the Melvin episode here