Author | Illustration EMILY MAY ROSE

Kalinka: Fucking Cold Toronto

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. For the next twelve weeks, we’ll be posting one chapter a week 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.


We are cutting it close to making the ferry. I have lost my heart by the time we reach the first intersection. The wind arcs. It is c-shaped bearing down on us, then blowing up to the sky, taking with it snow, paper, coat tails in its upward gust. It almost swept up a little old lady who was steadied by a man passing by.

My luggage and its little wheels tumble along the cobblestones like a drunken asshole. I am a collection of activities. Firstly, I lean fiercely into the wind, prying a few steps out of the walk, until the wind or the wobbling luggage knock my top bags off and I am forced to stop and remount the whole operation all over again, each time more furious. My knees buckle as I wait for the light at this sprawling, shelterless intersection. I have no idea how I am going to manage getting across the boulevard, the streetcar tracks, the jogging trail. I am on a mean snow moon with a clock ticking and I am losing.

After what feels like an eternity of walking, we hang a right past a Scotia Bank and enter into a strange tunnel. There are rails across the width of the underpass and a small opening made for a human to pass through where the rails criss cross. I have to turn to enter and attempt to make a graceful arc into the passage. My luggage wheels get stuck on the railing, stopping me dead. The bags fall again. I am trying not to cry. The wind would make ice of them quickly anyhow.

I back up, re-pile and try again. Andrew is standing in the ramp waiting. I finally negotiate my way into the tunnel. We are in a concrete hole running through a building, with no stores, no people. Under here, there is nothing but dirty concrete and safety lighting. While horrible, it is a break from the unkind wind for a few minutes, and the ground is even. For these things, I am actually relieved, even though I swear I am in a murder scene.

In the tunnel, my bags stay balanced for the first time, my luggage wheels whirring along as we pass through the strange corridor. Andrew’s shape is still just ahead. A compass. He shape shifts from dark to light as he passes by each safety light.

On the nights when I couldn’t come back, I would sleep on a burgundy brocade 1930s couch in the back room. On the way to the washroom, my bare feet would pass over the old pieces of tin that you hammered into the wood floor where the boards were thin. One was an old tuna tin. Another from a box of lozenges. I could hear the dog snoring, and I could hear you up somewhere upstairs. I think back now and I realize that I was never invited up there but instead slept in the back of Zoots like a lost animal. I could hear the boom of bass and talking passing along Prentis Street from where I lay and wondered if I was safe. But I have always wondered this.

“You are ahead,” she says.

“Yes.” I say. “A little ahead and trying not to take the space out from under myself.”

When we emerge, there is a stretch across a park with a weaving path, winding past a life-sized statue of Jack Layton. I only need to get past this field of squalling snow and through the kiosks that, in the summer, host long lines of people heading over to the island for the day and I will find some shelter.

I will myself to not collapse in front of Jack as a gust of snow belts me in the face and blows past in a forceful burst. I am becoming hysterical. Bearing the wind, I press on, and practically knock Andrew out of the way to get into the heated room provided for the winter wait for the ferry. Once in, I collapse on a birch bench. My chest is heaving up and down, winded. I am not light-hearted. My heart is full of things that need unloading.

“This level was not fun.”

Andrew laughs, while stomping his feet and pulling off his gloves. I notice they are fading to a charcoal as he shoves them in his side pockets and sits beside me. His greying gloves rivet me away from my meltdown just long enough to distract me from weeping.

“You okay, baby?”

“No. That was entirely horrible. It was mean. My luggage scrambled around everywhere, just punched around out in the wind. The wind was trying to kill me too. I jumbled everywhere and the wind even tried to blow the lady in front of me away. Did you see that? Did you?”

He is laughing as my arms windmill around explaining the wind. He knows I am really furious, so he tries to stop laughing, but he can’t. My feelings are hurt by weather. I am chagrined by architecture and fabric sacks full of things that won’t stay balanced. I know it is ridiculous. I know. But I start crying anyway.

“It’s. Not-”

“Aw buddy.”

“-Funny.”

He puts his arm around me, even though I am pretty sure he thinks I am a huge baby. We missed the ferry and are the only ones in the shelter while we wait for another hour, so we lean into each other, surrounded by the carts and bags and wait. I am a wrinkled super heroine who just fought with an invisible enemy, over nothing. I chuckle despite my tears.

“Andrew?”

“Yeah baby?”

“We didn’t win this Get Smart mission.”

“Nope.”

I laugh, but am a little defeated. My rebellion has made me tired. There are no banners of celebration to commemorate my first winter trip to Ward Island. Just a quiet room and the stiff fabric of Andrew’s coat as I nestle into him. I crawl deeper into its many pocketed folds. We strengthen what calls to us.

Mostly I have been sorry for who I am. So when you told me that the dog had chewed your curtains, and that I had lied about him, that I had lied, you say about everything, I remembered the sad little man that I had slept with in our basement and I couldn’t disagree. I remembered how my veins pulled me past the Grandview cut, where the coyotes ate cats, and pulled me towards Keefer and Hawkes, where I could let who I was out in company that would not judge. I sat there in a windowless studio in East Vancouver taking the longboard out into the night to a hotel on Hastings Street to get more wine each time we ran out. I was sure that you were sleeping and that you would eat Red River cereal in the morning. I was sure. 

The night I went to get the dog at the airport, I was dressed in white. I had borrowed my stepsister’s car. I mostly am sorry for who I am, but that big dog slept with me in the corner of my studio, his ribs moving up and down. The big dog loved me for who I was. I could hear my neighbour strumming a guitar through the walls. I could barely breathe. I wasn’t sure where home was, but I could see the flicker of cars passing by under the streetlights, flickering in between my cans of paint brushes lining the window sill.

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