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.
Go home to Detroit. Walk along her streets and collect evidence.
Take many notes, share Marlboros in the snow on Woodward Avenue with strangers. Appear unhinged in Reebok high tops found in Value World. Nurses shoes.
Afterwards, let Detroit go. See the road under the road. Find compass.
In Toronto, yearn to live within its counter site, enjambed in the liminal.
Let this yearning produce a boat.
I have since inhabited the boat with my stories, the husks that make me, seeker that I am.
Andrew wields our rusty “bug eyed” Benz along the 401. It is already dark as we hit the outskirts of the city. Toronto is a collection of tiny lights in the distance, obscured and then revealed as flurries of snowflakes pass along the windshield. We have just left the salt heap that we come from, shuttered our house on the fringes of Hiram Walker’s old estates.
The pavement stretches out into the night, revealing itself one bit at a time. Andrew navigates this snowy moonscape from our tiny cockpit. My boots are off, piled on the darkened floor, and my feet are resting on the dash. I am playing with the heating duct, turning the vent on then off, sliding the little nub of plastic back and forth with my toes. Andrew sits cross-legged while driving, smoking a cigarette. Periodically, he cracks the window to ash, letting in the deafening sound of wind along with a blast of cold that I welcome. The car is too hot for me. I have my coat and sweater off and am still sweating. Andrew, on the other hand, has his jacket done all the way up and lets out a shiver each time he slides the window down. The air is different for each of us.
We are listening to “Kick Out the Jams” by the MC5 on Andrew’s iPod, which is plugged into the tape player with one of those fake cassettes you can buy at the dollar store, the white audio cord snaking out from the crack in the dash. We have been listening to them all weekend. I look out the dark window and fantasize about meeting Patti Smith while eating hotdogs at Lafayette Coney Island. We are sitting beside each other at the counter. She is wearing a black toque and her Comme Des Garçons uniform.
We haven’t spoken yet, but we will. Ali is to my left, making our hotdogs. I am looking forward to mine. The black and white photograph of her out front of the restaurant hangs on the wall just behind us. The Patti in the photograph is younger and looks especially defiant, surrounded by her entourage, her hand hitched into her belt loop. In the photograph, one can see Ali making hotdogs in the background. The buns are piled high behind the glass, ready to collect the meat.
I am brought back to the present as the song ends. I hit repeat for the fifth time in the stretch between Dimmy’s dog food factory—a fond marking point of our commuting, which hearkens the approach of Toronto after a long flat ride—and Oakville. “It’s Dimmy’s dog food factory,” we say at exactly the same time as we pass. We glance at each other and smile.
I think of the Grande Ballroom. It has become a fantasy spot for me. I climb into this imaginary punk rock gala and mingle with the energies, live with the sweaty bodies weaving and gyrating, the loud guitars, the get-ups, the star children. This orchestrates in one corner of my thinking, while another section is eating hotdogs with Patti. I am also mesmerized by the snow swirling along the road out the windshield in front of me. They are Detroit’s famous urban pheasants scattering outside, kicking up brush. The Grande Ballroom of my mind is a place inside of me that is growing. A place of freedom and spark. It has been rising over this past year and has become ready for anything.
Brothas and sistas.
We commuted. That being, we drove. But also we tried to lighten our load. We were separated and reunited by this highway for a year. We were book-ended by it. We negotiated it together and separately, driving vans piled up with possessions from the compression of my story in Toronto to Andrew’s house in Windsor—a house housing past loves, bachelorhood, hot tubs, tenants. A house where, before my time, late nights were had around the kitchen island—nights spent chipping away at the massive stack of CDs on the counter. There was always a Marshall cabinet in the corner and a cigarette in the old stand-up ashtray. Over the past year, we had taken over the old Walkerville house, populating it with my collections and items that had found themselves homeless in Toronto, gathering Andrew’s things from ex-girlfriends’ garages, combining.
Usually he was coming as I was going, and vice versa. That was our mantra, lined with pavement. On occasion, we got in sync and swung along the highway together. This was one of those rare moments where our rhythms were aligned, motoring somewhere near Vaughn. It was the first time I was coming up to stay in the little room we had rented on Ward Island for Andrew while he worked in the city during the week.
We moved between Toronto and the town that forged us, my husband and I, into just the stubborn fuckers that would take on the impossibility that we were about to meet. Like any good adventure, we had no idea what was happening next.
We were driving into the night knowing only just a little.
At the beginning of this road trip, we estimated that there were a few really beautiful stars in the sky. We didn’t guess an amount. We just knew there were beacons that we should look for. As we moved down the highway, the stars were quietly multiplying. Or, at least the estimation of stars we had in our heads was exponentially growing, and soon this knowledge would open to us. We are flux as we speed our car through Oakville. We are imaginary hotdogs. Pheasants. Old rock and rollers scaling the terrain.
“Okay, you ready for this? It’s like Get Smart. First thing is to get the car to the parking garage. I have this nifty pass to get us past that level.”
He holds up a smooth white card as proof.
“Then what, husband friend?”
“Then we pack the roll cart and see if we can make it through the wind corridor of Queen’s Quay. This is a particularly challenging level to get through. We could die.”
I laugh. We are about to get onto the 427, which is reminiscent of a race car game—the one from the 80s that has cars to pass and hazards to avoid on the road. Andrew deftly weaves around the cars and remembers by heart where the lanes suddenly end. We get quiet. The car is shushing along with the other cars. Eventually, we arc to join up with the QEW, making our way east in a steady flow of night-time traffic. There are lights everywhere, fixed and moving. We enter into this city light show and it makes me dizzy after the dim weeks spent in Windsor.
The lake is beside me, sunk in total darkness. The Lakeshore is empty. It spans between the darkness of the lake and the buildup of the city. It is a plane of concrete that slips us unannounced into the city. I feel like Batman, or a diplomat sliding along the giant road. I am a meat curtain breathing in the night beside another meat curtain, who I love. We are practicing. We are showing up together to what is arising. I scan my body, and I am sore. I am tight in the chest, as always, because I am usually too wound up. I take a deep breath into my belly and grab Andrew’s hand. The car holds us for a little longer.
“Let me be who I am,” I whisper to the night sky.