Melanie Janisse-Barlow is a poet, artist, and writer who splits her time between a rum-runners era house in Windsor’s Old Walkerville and a houseboat docked beside Ontario Place. We’re posting installments from Janisse-Barlow’s new memoir, Kalinka. Candid, raw, and full of references to our beloved city, Kalinka is a collection of stories about a woman, a man, and how life on Kalinka, their houseboat, has shaped their journey. We’re excited to share Janisse-Barlow’s writing with you and also delighted to pair with local illustrator Emily May Rose. Read previous installments here.
The door to the condo opens, revealing Carol, Kalinka’s current owner. She arches her eyebrow with a mischievous grin. I can hardly look at Carol. She is tremendously beautiful in her Levis and crisply pressed western shirt. She looks like a Halston model, her blonde hair in a fashionable bob, her eyes flashing with vitality and secrets. I want to know everything about her in one instant.
“Come on in! I’m Carol.”
Andrew and I reach out our hands to shake Carol’s. She gives us a warm, strong handshake, one at a time, as we enter the condo.
“Hello. Thanks for seeing us.”
There is a moment of awkward silence.
“So you want Kalinka, do you?”
We both nod yes to Carol’s question. It seemed a good place to start, this direct fact. We want the old boat she has sheltered under tarps, nestled into the canopy of an old oak tree. We have come to a changing of the charges, like three loose bis of metal working around the same magnet.
“Of course, of course! I am just waiting for my boyfriend to get here.”
She ushers us to a seat on a low couch. I am in a mid-eighties condo at the waterfront, out of the realm of the west end, tucked in an improbable place, taking in the decor, the lake, the crispness of the scene. It is novel to me, unlike the dirty streets of Kensington, or the boiling hot cafés in Parkdale, roiling with tattoos and attitude. I am in another land in this city, free from something. I watch Carol, knowing she is unsure if she is ready to let go of her boat. She is hovering around a loosening, darting in and out of claiming and relieving.
I excuse myself and head to the bathroom.
I close the door to Carol’s bathroom hearing the throng of my heartbeat. It is drumming in my throat, and the back of my neck is throbbing and tender. I am overwhelmed. The wallpaper is metallic gold, peppered with peacocks. I remember the brood of peacocks calmly wandering the grounds of the Fisher Mansion, my friends and I walking through their fold while the Krishnas stand at the door, waiting to greet us and our hungry bellies.
“Of course she has this wallpaper,” I think as I pee. The whole apartment has me in a state. From the chrome chandeliers to the gold wallpaper, I am inside of a time warp. I am a little scattered and starstruck. I wipe myself and hitch up my jeans. I can’t wait to get back outside. I promise myself that I will not gawk but break my promise immediately as I come around the corner and see the painting on the wall above a hutch. It is a schilling. I would bet my life on it.
“Beautiful schilling,” I say.
“Thanks. I knew Arthur,” says Carol.
“I haven’t ever seen this one.”
I stand there for a while with giant colour. Later, while I read about his work, I find it described as the kind of colour and energy one would reserve for comets. Standing there, I lose my footing, melt into the movement of the work, hold it up against the metallic wallpaper from the bathroom, and I feel the effect of being surrounded by a vivid trail. I know that I am in the right place, doing the right thing.
I have been criticized for thinking this way and I would consider my ways more if they didn’t work so well. I get confused when I have to plod. When the atmosphere in the room takes my breath away, when there are snow-encrusted boats waiting for me and their owner is a movie star, where there are trails of art, where there are promises to “bring the beauty back,” to love her too, when these breadcrumbs are in front of me, my life makes sense.
We all sit in the living room, festooned with artifacts from Carol’s travels to Mexico, Guatemala. We are here to claim Kalinka. We are interviewed, but only to assure her that we will love the boat. I can tell it is difficult for Carol to pass her on. She wants to make sure that we are real, that we understand the responsibilities of passing this torch. Kalinka was at the edges of everything we spoke of that day, waiting while we promised to love her, to resurrect her from her resting place, mossy and riddled with wasp nests.
I want to tell Carol that the colours in her house guide me. That I feel a kindred. That the peacocks in her wallpaper remind me of the hidden places I have been in my life. We agree to buy the boat for a meagre sum, and as we draw up the paperwork, something is passed between us that feels so very fragile. An old and gentle beauty that has taken on the shape of a boat, but it is more than just a boat. Its trail is woven through the objects around me, things that harness a secret. I have felt this before. It is a convergence of objects, both displayed and sealed up in tarp. It is not about my peacocks from Detroit; it is not about a boat.
I am waiting in Carol’s entryway while Andrew runs to the bank machine for a $100 bill. It is an awkward currency.
I am in Detroit, finding my way into an abandoned book store on Prentis that had been recently taken over by a recovered crack addict. I had befriended him, and he let me hang out in the front of the shop, a mess of leaking ceilings and books on rusting shelves. I would spend hours rescuing books from the wreck. This is the first place I had ever come across Phil Levine’s writing. It was one of the few poetry books that had not succumbed to the ever-growing mould breeding amongst the pages.
I am talking to Carol about tennis. I’m full of colours and gold leaf and wrapped in sun-destroyed blue tarps. I am high on opium. I am sober, holding a giant dog in a humid studio on Dundas Street, his heaving chest is my life raft. I am a hologram. I am trying to understand.
“Holy shit. What did we just do?”
Andrew and I are waiting for the elevator. He is clutching the paperwork for Kalinka against his chest tenderly but intensely. It is one thing to sit in a boat, somewhat illegally, imagining an adventure, and it is an entirely other thing to make it real.
“We have to find some insurance for this right away.”
Just like that there is traction in reality. Insurance. Physical work. Commitment to an idea. I must admit that I am much better at starting things than I am at maintaining them. The cords of this marriage are strung tightly between two cities. What would the weight of a ten-tonne boat do to this balance? We are going to find out, and it will change everything.