Translator / Author’s Note
Notes on Roadkill traverses a strangely familiar landscape: first moving across the eastern coast of the United States, then crossing over the Canadian border into Montreal. The car window rolls down and transforms the highway into a cinematographic reel of memories, fantasies, and prophecies as its characters look out onto an empire in decline.
Heather and Joel, driver and copilot, share the roles of narrator and protagonists on a literary road trip with little regard for the borders between chronicle and fiction. Their travels, filled with humor, love, irreverence, and critique, pulse with the tension that exists between an admiration of the culture and natural landscape of the United States and the horror of recognizing the violence that underpins it.
Notes on Roadkill was written by the Puerto Rican author and journalist, Joel Cintrón Arbasetti, who put words in the mouth of his subject, Heather, translating stories from her life into fiction. Subsequently, translator Heather Houde spits them back out in her interpretation into English; a mutual ventriloquism that queers the binary between subject and author, writer and translator, reality and fiction.
Heather Houde and Joel Cintrón Arbasetti
We’re Gonna Have to Do a Double Check
The border patrol agent checked our passports without ever taking off his sunglasses. He never looked you in the face. He was skinny, couldn’t have been thirty years old, and acted and spoke as if he were in a movie.
“It’s movies that have really been running things in America ever since they were invented. They show you what to do, how to do it, when to do it, how to feel about it, and how to look how you feel about it,” Andy Warhol.
He was a dead ringer for Robert Patrick in Terminator 2, a mediocre version of T-1000, the liquid android who could self-regenerate. He didn’t inspire fear, but rather compassion, as if one could guess that behind that uniform a little kid was hiding, trying to make up for the years of bullying he had suffered in school.
The cloudless sky kept on expanding. The heat, fermenting the confusion of crossing from one country to another, had converted the caffeine filled hours on the road into a dream-inducing semi-sedative. I don’t recall even the slightest breeze. We had already been stuck in traffic at the border for what felt like an eternity. To our left was a family in a Dodge Caravan with the side doors rolled open. There were two pairs of adults, two little girls, and one boy. The family could have been from somewhere in the Balkans, some small town in Albania, or Turkey. They seemed happy. The older women taking selfies. The man driving, talking, and laughing. The girls playing with their phones. All killing the slow time of the border: the filter for people, the maximum simulacrum of security, the ideal stage for carrying out an authoritative performance.
The border patrol check-point looks like a camera-filled toll booth with a big sign on top that says in giant, white, capital letters:
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
“LIFE IN THIS COUNTRY IS GOING TO GET MORE HORRIBLE…
All America wants somewhere to stay an image stasis,” Kathy Acker (1978).
Heather was driving, like she did for the entire road trip, because I never got my driver’s license. In this situation it is important that one assume with seriousness the role of copilot, or so she told me before we got in the car. With my attention on the GPS, the oncoming cars, the types of houses, administering the provisions, reading poems from The Fall of America and questioning the Ginsberg’s grandiosity, monitoring the flora, the fauna, and their associated threats, counting the dead animals on the side of the highway, taking note of their species along with the kilometer and hectometer where the cadaver was located, monitoring the weather, remaining vigilant of drowsiness, disk jockeying, telling stories about exes, listening, and saying nothing. All this, yes, but above all else my job was to yell if I spotted a yard sale on the side of the road. You never know, there could be Russian dolls, mirrors with baroque frames, a grandmother’s tablecloth, electro-domestic appliances that can be altered and transformed into musical instruments, or infrasonic weapons to be used against the police.
Heather turned and looked at me through her dark glasses where the white letters from the border reflected, and said, mockingly, with the tone of a perfume commercial:
“U-NI-TED-SSSTATES-OF-A-MER-RI-CA.” I took a few pictures with my phone and almost got out of the car to get a better angle of the sign. Why not? We were stuck in traffic anyway. I wanted a picture of the sign that appeared to be announcing the entrance to a racetrack for horses or for cars but instead announced the entrance to an empire on its last leg. We had been listening to the pink cassette tape from Luge, Tall is Just a Feeling, the band we saw the night before at La Casa de Popolo. Then Heather put on Intercepted, a podcast by Jeremy Scahill. In this episode: a conversation with the Croatian philosopher Srećko Horvat about the partisan war in Yugoslavia and the fight against fascism during the Second World War and the recent emergence of the extreme right in Europe.
Route 15: on the side of the highway, before the cars got stuck in traffic at the border, there were little yellow and purple flowers. “Amo las flores salvajes. O debo decir silvestres?”
Srećko Horvat: Did you know that China builds every year more fast train railway tracks than Germany has altogether?
In the little time we spent in Montreal in an apartment on St. Joseph Blvd and its surrounding area, we didn’t see even the tiniest trace of poverty. There were no abandoned buildings, or heroin encampments, or people without homes forced to wander, like in Kensington or Santurce. We left with the impression that we simply didn’t see enough, we couldn’t accept that there could be a city without poverty.
“In Montreal…the sparkle and violence of American cities are missing.” – Baudrillard
Montreal is a pseudo-island of rivers, fastened to the continent by a system of giant bridges. On the way to the border there are green pieces of land as big as an invisible city. Power lines strung between electrical towers that shine like mirrors. Monte Guay, says the street sign, and Heather wants to get out and write traffic tickets for the cars that drive on the shoulder to cut the line. I want to ask them for a cigarette to call it even. I make the suggestion that you make them do a dance in the middle of the highway as a punishment for their recklessness. Monte Glass. The pine trees and the cell towers overlap, one in front of the other.
How many microwaves cross the border between The United States and Canada each day without being questioned by Border Patrol? Are the dead mosquitos in the bathroom at the border Canadian or are they United States-ian?
PRÉPAREZ-VOUS À ARRÊTER
Srećko Horvat: Europe still looks like Paris in the movies, Rome and all this kind of utopian bullshit about Europe. But the situation here is actually very worrying. And what happens in Europe will have deep consequences on the U.S. on and on, as it always had on the rest of the world. Don’t forget that two world wars started in Europe, that in the 90s, we had the breakup of Yugoslavia, which also, as we can see now has also had consequences on the rest of Europe.
“America and Europe’re no longer anything. Things are winding down to the sea, to the sea, we to the sand,”
When it was our turn at the border patrol booth, Heather put the podcast on pause to listen to the Border Patrol agent, who never took off his sunglasses. “You were taking pictures”, He told, or rather, asked me. I replied yes. “You know I can arrest you for that?” He continued to look at the passports without looking at your face. “Where are you from?” He asked you. “Do they have stop signs in Philly?” He was at the height of his performance. “How do you know this guy? What is your job? And you?” An English as a Second Language teacher (ESL) and a Puerto Rican journalist crossing the border from Canada en route to the United States. The journalist was taking pictures and kissing the ESL teacher motorist. The motorist passed a stop sign that we never saw; on the way to the border patrol booth and I violated the no-photo-taking rule which I was not aware of and of whose existence I apparently should have been able to guess. “We’re gonna have to do a double check.”
He told us to drive over to the processing center on the right. He kept the passports. We parked in a lane designated for automobile searches and entered the center to wait. In the waiting room, which seemed like a small airport with a vending machine, was the family from the Dodge Caravan with the open doors. I couldn’t identify the language they were speaking. I was on the verge of asking one of them, in English, where they were from, but never got up the nerve.
Under what circumstances and for which motives should a person ask another person where they are from? You started stretching in the middle of the waiting room. You spread out your arms, pulling them behind you. Bending over you touched your toes with your fingertips. I was terrified by your movements. I thought that such corporal freedom in such a space ran the risk of activating some automated protocol of repression. One of the men in the family next to us tried not to look, but couldn’t avoid it. I suspect that he too got a little nervous.
We waited less than an hour before they called our names. How romantic to hear our names through the speakers system of the Border Patrol’s processing center. “Heather Houde and Joel Cintrón” (with static and distortion). Not to mention when the agent asked you, “is he your boyfriend?” and you said yes. And I heard you tell again what you do for a living: English as a Second Language. And when the agent said “hum…you travel a lot,” looking at the stamps in our passports—El Salvador, Mexico, Argentina, Columbia, Peru…—I felt an immense satisfaction upon hearing the tone of envy and suspicion with which he made the comment. What comments can one make to a Border Patrol agent while he is detaining you at the border? Standing there, no passport, I felt naked despite my citizenship. In the car you said that when asked “is he your boyfriend?” you would have liked to have said “well, that term is a little outdated, I prefer to say…” But what purpose does making those types of clarifications to a Border Patrol agent serve? The goal is to get out of there as quickly as possible, so you’ve got to play along with their black and white, binary game, don’t you think?
After all that everything turned out fine. The other family left unscathed, too. All the people that pass through there leave happy after having their time wasted in the name of national security. Yet, Heather had a bad taste in her mouth for not having been sufficiently sincere in the face of authority. That’s why in the car, already in U.S. territory, and with a beautiful road trip vanishing into the air, she started to spew all the answers she would have liked to have said to the Border Patrol.
BORDER PATROL AGENT THAT LOOKS LIKE T-1000 FROM TERMINATOR II: Are you carrying weapons, marijuana, or any illegal paraphernalia?
HEATHER: Why, of course, officer. In the trunk we’ve got every perverse, illegal thing we could get our hands on in the streets of Montreal, which wasn’t much, given the utterly insipid character of that city, but we did what we could. We scavenged the little filth we could find in every ditch and gutter. I’m still carrying some under my pink nails and the rest in a small, unvarnished wooden box. We fucked in every gas station, we stole seven copies of the Sunday edition of the New York Times and we went scattering its pages all over the road, tossing news, articles, interviews, and features about fashion and technology out the moving window: the trees wanted back what was theirs and we gave it to them, now with letters printed in ink that wound up floating in the waters of the Raritan River. I’ve fired a gun on several occasions, shotguns, handguns. I shoot blanks into the air, hunt to eat, hunt to skin what I catch. The only time I fired at a man, I was in an ice cream shop in Connecticut. I missed. I still remember the sound of the window glass shattering. It’s a spectacular sound.
Translated by Heather Houde