There is an understood chaos amongst Michigan drivers. It’s methodic. To natives, it makes sense.
After my move to the mitten state, I became aware of fear-inducing expressways and crisscrossing webs of on- and off-ramps not more than fifty feet long, particularly on I-94. Metro Detroit can be intimidating to unfamiliar drivers. Merging traffic must either make an assertive move within those fifty feet or face the only other alternative: a concrete wall cradling the expressway fondly referred to as ‘the ditch.’
Back in Ontario there is a sense of calm on most roads, including the rhythmic 401. In Ontario, a vehicle either moves south or north, east or west. Incoming traffic is predictable. Polite almost. Drivers make room for one another, even if begrudgingly acknowledging a right of way.
Two months after I handed over my OHIP card, to have a hole punched in it by a clerk who informed me it would no longer be valid and I would henceforth be revoked of my provincial healthcare privileges once I crossed the border permanently, I admitted to my American husband I was not yet comfortable with my now-local traffic. The speed limits were higher. Drivers went faster still. The constant force of more vehicles on one road than the entire human population of my former southwestern Ontario town was intimidating. The road and its inhabitants were unfamiliar to me.
Crossing the neutral ground through the tunnel, or one of the bridges, is like holding one’s breath. Time seems to stop. Space does not exist. The matter of existence is vague. It is the moment between waking and being awake.
When I meet someone new, I say I am in, but not from, Detroit. I’m still too new to belong. When I meet someone from Detroit, I say I just moved here. That was in February. It is now October. I wonder how long new is new. I wonder when I am from somewhere, like I used to be.
On more than one occasion I have mimicked the milked midwestern accent, accentuating the schwa in words like college and cat that make it sound as though the letter Y should appear after the letter C. In turn, I have been accused of referencing footwear when I say ‘about,’ which is simply not true. No one in Canada says that, except perhaps comedians mocking Americans mocking Canadians. Now Rachael, a friend of more than twenty years, finds amusement in my acclimated pronunciation of cat. I hadn’t noticed. Then again, subtle changes change subtly.
The water beneath the bridge and above the tunnel floats me between two lands, both green, both fertile. One considers me a native, the other an alien. One was once home, but no longer. The other has become my home, though it didn’t feel that way immediately. It became where I lived, but a home is much more than a house shared with someone you love. It takes time for roots to root.
Returning from the pacific coast this summer, on a road trip exploring unknown streets and cities, Chicago became the border. Its location divided three weeks of vacation and the permanent residence I have come to recognize. Ten months after I posed for my Michigan driver’s license, it seemed natural to curve the on-ramp, segueing into the I-94 staccato.
When I cross the bridge after a visit to Ontario, I now exhale when I merge into native traffic. I am still new, but my speedometer has synchronized with the others. Traffic is chaotic, but familiar. Calm almost. Even more so as I return home.
Lori A. May is a poet, novelist, and freelance writer. Her short stories and poems have been featured in publications like The Tipton Poetry Journal, Willows Wept Review, and Van Gogh’s Ear. She is also the Founding Editor of The Ambassador Poetry Project and Editor-in-Chief of Poet’s Quarterly. Born in Canada, Lori now lives and writes on the shores of Michigan. More info on her work can be found at www.loriamay.com.