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.
The first time I got high, I smoked opium. Why start small? The houses get saggier the closer you get to downtown. We walked up the steel fire escape and through a battered door that opened into a small living room with a low grey couch—stained, of course. In the back of the room was a brown veneered dinette with chrome seats upholstered in a shit brown vinyl. It was Steve’s uncle’s place. It was the first time that we had come here together.
Uncle kept disappearing through a doorway adorned with an American flag. He kept coming back out with drugs, all the while talking non-stop, all the while with his Molson Ex slung between two fingers like a compressed nipple. We were nestled on the couch, Steve’s Doc Martens touching my creepers. I stared for a long time at a tear in my black tights, pinching the fabric and pulling it up off of my leg so that I could see it through the candle flame burning on the low wood and glass table, scattered with ashes and paraphernalia. Something was off in my stomach.
This was not the place that I had dreamed of finding. This was not pomegranates at all.
The room smelled like old beer. The culmination of so much aloneness pressed against me, making me feel claustrophobic; the aloneness of all of the years of dreaming myself out of the rows of houses, hoping for something more vivid; the aloneness of this shitty room, whose pallor was nothing close to the vibrancy I imagined when I parted the curtains and left. The unbelievable aloneness of it all pressed against me as I sat there and I accustomed to the shitty light in the shitty room, beside the shitty boyfriend.
I knew I had to go before this whole thing became rote. The unfortunate thing was that it already had. I also didn’t know that I could leave and take this whole thing with me, like a virus in the veins.
Once, while in a metaphysical shop in Windsor, I was told that I make a lot of noise so that I don’t have to hear myself. The snowy road on Ward Island seems to know about this and asks me to be quiet. The Christmas trees are all tied up in the trees to dry until the Spring Solstice bonfire. They creak above me, snow laden, spooky, swaying amongst the things that have been here all along, conspiring. I feel in good hands on this road, with its ghosts and creaking, unnerving trees, as if Gwen MacEwan is somewhere nearby willing me on.
When I first moved to Toronto, at age twenty-seven, I bought a pair of earrings from her estate, which took a large portion of my already late rent. I didn’t care. I wish I had them on today. I decide that there are a pair of kohl-lined eyes out in the trees today, keeping watch, cheering us on. There is road under this road, and a compass that points to something enjambed. A material gaining thickness.
The sounds are shrouded as if a giant wool blanket just got thrown over a speaker. I can hear my own breath, my heart coming out of the loudest channel. The snow is sparkling all around me, woven, transforming the hardship of the winter into a powdery disco ball. I feel the moistness of my breath, as it hits my scarf. I can taste the salt of snot as my breath incubates and turns to ice on the wool. We move like joined snails through the snow. The strange, old mink coat I am wearing is making me sweat. The rub of our hands, fat glove to fat glove, causes a sweet friction. We are lingering figures in the snowscape, in slow boots. I feel like a sweaty gorilla that is floating on meringues.
I see two lone figures in the snow, negotiating the road much further down. I imagine that it is Gwen MacEwan and Milton Acorn coming home from a walk. As they get closer, Gwen’s inky eyes and onyx jewelry flash at me, mooning out of dark wools, striking a mysterious figure alongside of Milton’s barrelling body as they make their way on the snowy road.
We had just walked past the EMS station when the actual figures approach. They happen to be two poet friends of mine coming from Artscape, where they were working on a project together. Our meeting was brief—an exchange of hellos—but auspicious. The road is for poets today.
Moments after this quick exchange, Andrew pulls on my sleeve, indicating that it is time to turn.
“This way, baby.”
We walk down a short and narrow path, barley cleared, extending along a frozen canal with dock poles sticking out everywhere like leftover bones. Andrew slides down the bank to see if the water is frozen enough for us to walk on. He finds a large branch and pokes at the ice, which breaks instantly, revealing the ice cold water beneath.
“What do we do now?”
He hauls himself back onto the path and walks up to a giant metal gate spanning across the path and pushes the buzzer on the intercom. After a minute, a voice cracks out at us.
“Hi. We are here to look at a boat.”
“Who is this?”
“Oh hey. Sure. Come on in.”
Andrew looks at me with a devilish grin and lights a cigarette. He indicates the direction in which we need to walk by jutting his chin to the left. We head around the bend, following the water over a semi-circular bridge and into the yard.