My Favorite Girlfriend Was a French Bulldog is a novel told in fifteen stories, linked by the same protagonist, our narrator, who—in her own voice and channeling the voices of others—creates an unsparing, multigenerational portrait of her native Cuba. Legna Rodriguez Iglesias’s novel marks the emergence of an original and essential new voice on the literary scene.
My Favorite Girlfriend Was a French Bulldog is out now from McSweeney’s Publishing.
The initial idea of this book, according to the author—who is not me, I’m just her pet and her instrument of inspiration—was to write fifteen stories, all in the first person so the reader would feel closer to the text. And all of it based on me. About me. So far it’s going well, this is the last text, number fifteen, but there’s not a trace of me anywhere.
I mean that there’s no trace of my real and conclusive and developed presence, the kind that would justify the book’s title. I’ve only made subtle appearances in those interesting phrases she places between one story and the next. And if I’m honest I don’t find them that amusing. Clever phrases she comes up with all the time and writes as her Facebook status and then people click like on.
Maybe she should have focused more. I saw her writing all the time and not sleeping, she’d sleep maybe three hours at a time, and I wondered what she could be writing. Because she’s all for writing two or three books at the same time, she starts a project one day, then comes up with another project and starts that one too, and she doesn’t stop until they’re both finished, which is exhausting, and something for which a person needs great talent and intelligence, and I don’t know if that’s really her.
The other day, for example, she got up from her chair and started to make coffee. She looked at me sideways and she said, “Does it really have to come to this, to the point where I scold you, yell at you, throw a flip-flop in your eye?” and all because I went running to the bed, jumped onto the bed, grabbed whatever was closest to the edge of the bed—which was a pair of black leggings and a Forever 21 bra—and I chewed them and shook them and played with them until I turned them into a handful of black shreds. I can’t tell if she likes that or not.
The thing about the flip-flop in the eye is just a saying. The way she’s found to train me and make me respect her is by banging a flip-flop on the floor, something that scares me a lot, and to tell the truth it does make me wise up. But she does scold me and yell at me, even if in the middle of the scolding and yelling she realizes that I’m beautiful and she takes me by the head and squeezes me affectionately.
She tells everyone that I’m a kind of fricken. The word is a compound of frog and chicken. She says I’m fat like a frog and I have eyes like a chicken’s, too far to either side, it looks like I can’t see forward, only sideways. She also says that I’m a fish. She shows off to visitors, shouting, “Help! A fish!” and then her friends blow kisses to the fricken and the fish that is me.
She’s stopped eating because she misses a person who is my dad. The term dad is her invention. I’m happy because the less she eats, the more she writes. If she starts to eat she doesn’t write. If she starts to read she doesn’t write. She has to be completely idle and free and very hysterical for a truly marvelous text to come out of her. That’s how she writes the best things. In an ideal state of desperation.
I’m the only thing she has and I do realize that and I like it. She takes off her clothes and bathes and lies down on the bed’s edge and I go and lick an arm until she scolds me. It’s yummy when the skin is all wet and tastes like soap or lotion. She uses lotions that taste like dried fruits. I like it. I like it. I like it.
She gets up and starts to write naked and suddenly connects her speaker and she gets up from the chair and picks me up and together we dance to “La Bilirrubina” or any song by Juan Luis Guerra or by Rita Indiana or by whoever. It’s a playlist for parties that only take place between her and me. The party is here and now.
When this person who is my dad was at home she danced only with that person. All three of us naked because I’m always naked. I ran crazy around the living room because that’s what I think dancing is. Running and dancing are the same thing to me. When she and my dad danced they almost couldn’t dance from so much hugging. She misses my dad and I miss my dad, but the good thing is that she has only me now to act as her source of inspiration so I’ll be the one and only protagonist of her books. The whole world will know me.
She cooks up some stews of carrot, radish, and green beans that she shares with me, and since she’s obsessive compulsive she cuts twenty-five slices of carrot, twenty-five of radish, and twenty-five of green beans. A stew unique in the world that contains a total of seventy-five vegetable pieces. She gives me a portion of that with my daily rice and my daily sweet potato.
Only once did I get food poisoning and it was with minced turkey, a thing she hasn’t spent her money on since then, not even to eat it herself. My eyeballs bulged and I broke out in hives. She shouted, “Help, a fish!” and she started to cry, and called a friend on the phone and snuck a pill quickly into my mouth because I didn’t want to swallow it. After a while I felt better and my eyes again looked like what they are, a couple of frog eyes, huge and green and tender.
If she ever has kids that’ll be it for me, she’ll pour all that mothering into the new baby. She’ll make the baby into the protagonist of her books and her poems, she’ll take it to readings and to the movies and to the theater, the way she does with me now—she takes me everywhere and people look at her like she’s a crazy person with an unhealthy mother complex.
Her girlfriends feel sorry for her because she lives in a rented apartment that costs an arm and a leg. Or something even more valuable—an eye. I also cost an eye, so if you look at it like that the author of this book is a female Oedipus. I’m citing Oedipus because I know that talking about theater consoles and cheers her. Everything to do with theater consoles and cheers her. Because the person who is my dad worked in the theater and all that has to do with that medium. I cost her the equivalent of five months’ rent. She’d just come back from a poetry festival in Miami with a little money to subsist on, so it would be a good while before things got bad. But then she got that urge she gets that’s like a fit, and she decided the only thing that would make her happy was a newborn Italian greyhound or a newborn French bulldog.
That is the origin of my existence in this story of hers and mine. And no one knows this, not her family, not her friends, not her enemies. I guess that now when the book is published everyone will find out and open their mouths in a sign of astonishment.
I understand that this text, because it’s the last, should be conclusive and overwhelming, with an unsettling conflict and denouement, because that’s how it happens in almost all the books and in almost all the movies and plays, the final minutes have to be overwhelming. But that’s not how this will go, because this is a descriptive text in which I’d like to expound upon my perceptions about human life.
It’s odd to watch her interact with her friends. I can tell when it’s a true friend who’s come over, and I can tell when it’s just a friend, or when the person who has come over doesn’t interest her in the slightest, or when it’s someone she can’t stand at all. I can also tell who is family and who’s not. Her best girlfriends are her family.
It takes her a long time to read boring books, and sometimes she sneaks around her own conscience and abandons those books halfway through, doesn’t even finish them. She reads the books she likes very quickly, in a few hours, but she still never forgets to feed me, give me water, and clean up my urine.
At first she dried my urine with a mopping cloth that she rinsed and wrung out all the time. Then the person who is my dad taught her the magic of the newspaper, and since then she hasn’t rinsed and wrung out again. She’s saved herself work, detergent, and time.
Since the person who is my dad left I can feel she’s more attached to me. I see her crying and I go over to her skin and I lick her skin softly and she looks at me and thanks me. She says, “My love, my fish, my little fish.” That makes her cry more and it makes me howl and lick her more. Again she says, “My love, my fish, my little fish.” The scene goes in crescendo until she dries her own tears and says, “Enough.” Sometimes she’s very hard on me and on herself. She’s hard when she writes, and she takes revenge for the bad things that happen to her by writing. Not like other writers and artists, who take revenge in other ways.
If she’s given something delicious to eat, she gives half to me.
If she copies a new, good movie, she tilts the screen so I can take a look, even though she knows that dogs can’t understand movies even if they’re as smart as I am.
If she’s invited to a party, she takes me.
If she thinks I won’t be able to make it because of the sun or the distance she doesn’t take me, and she doesn’t go either.
We have the party at home.
She celebrates my monthly birthday.
I was born February seventh, so every seventh I turn another month old. And that day I eat the same thing as always, well cooked over a low flame with a lot of water, no salt or oil, and I receive the same love as always, but something tells me it’s a special day. Something in her voice and in her eyes.
To write a book whose leitmotif is the bond, affectionate or grotesque, with a pet, in this case a dog, is not a thing she was the first to come up with. Literary history is full of similar examples. Even Anton Chekhov, a man of theater, wrote about a dog, and I’m referring to a very serious story published for children called “Whitebrow.” In my case I also have a white brow, like the puppy in Chekhov’s story.
Chekhov’s tale is about a she-wolf who is able to raise a puppy of another species. The same thing happens in this book, whose author is raising me, I am not of her species, not even close.
Really it’s not about that, it’s about something quite different, I made that up after she showed me the illustrations.
I know how to get up onto the furniture and I sleep better there than on the floor, even if it’s hot. But if she gets up from the bed where she’s always reading, or if she turns over in bed, or throws off the covers, or goes to the bathroom to pee, or to the kitchen to knock back a glass of water, or whatever she does, I can’t help but open my eyes, prick up my ears, look at her, and follow. I love her. She’s my mother.
Counting today, it’s been three days since she’s gotten up from the bed. I saw her lay down in bed day before yesterday after feeding me and giving me water. She’d taken a bunch of pills from her backpack and swallowed them nervously. She even let me get up onto the bed and shred a pair of pants that are among her favorites. I tore them up not because I’m bad but because I like her smell a lot.
Before she went to sleep I saw she was reading a book by a certain Coetzee, a writer she loves and whose books she drinks like glasses of water. I watched her read from the sofa, on a cushion, and I started falling asleep too. When I woke up she had the book in one hand, on page one hundred and three, and she didn’t finish it.
At night she didn’t get up, yesterday either. I’m hungry and thirsty. I’ve gotten up on her bed several times, I’ve played with her hair and she doesn’t wake up. Maybe she needs time. If she needs to sleep several hours for every pill she took, then she’ll be asleep at least a year.
Everything that Gilles Deleuze posits in his famous Alphabet Book, which begins tidily with the letter A, becomes earth and dust before me. Gilles Deleuze can’t stand animals. He’s a great philosopher but he can’t stand the friendly and familiar treatment of dogs and cats, and as such, for me and for her, he is reduced to dust. I love her. She’s my mother. And she is the best writer in the world.
Translated by Megan McDowell