Review: How Am I Supposed to Talk to You? by Lauren Holmes

(This short story is found in Lauren Holmes’ Barbara the Slut, an honest, modern—albeit sometimes generic—collection of stories about youthful love, sex, and identity. Holmes’ style is deceptively simple, using sparse language and leaving much to the reader’s interpretation. I would hope, however, that Holmes’ lovers represent only a fraction of the young adult population, given so many of the stories feature characters who are at best mistrustful, at worst apathetic, about their partners in love.)

How Am I Supposed to Talk to You? is the first story of the collection, and my favourite (for very superficial reasons, I won’t lie: my love for it hinges on the beachside setting and the propensity of the characters for wearing underwear, bikinis, and other scanty clothing).

Our narrator, Lala, and her mother have been estranged since middle school, but one summer she flies down to mom’s beach-side hotel with the aim of “generally [making] up for the ten years I was in California, in middle school, and high school, and college—and she was in Mexico, in the city, and then at the beach.” From this line alone, Lala’s feelings are made clear: she sees her visit to her mother as a duty, as something she feels obliged to undertake out of guilt rather than affection.

Despite the expressions of love that mother and daughter exchange, their long period of separation colours their interactions with an awkwardness expected of two people who hover on the border between familiarity and formality. Holmes deftly portrays this complicated relationship, with Lala and her mother treating each other sometimes with familial intimacy and other times, or even simultaneously, with cautious and strangerly politeness.

Both have secrets they’ve kept from the other: Mom has a boyfriend, Martin; Lala a girlfriend, Dana. The confessions themselves are not the focus of the story; rather, their purpose is to serve as examples that highlight the increasing disconnect between mother and daughter. “How am I supposed to talk to you?” Lala demands to know before their meeting with Martin, when mom tells her she only speaks Spanish around her boyfriend. While the language barrier is a literal problem (“I haven’t spoken Spanish since I was five,” says Lala), the question on a metaphoric level sums up the overarching theme of the story. It is not a language barrier they face, it is an emotional one.

Lala is hurt by her mother’s preoccupation with other errands, when what really matters is the time they spend as a family. Every one of the excursions they embark on happens to serve a second purpose. They go to the beach, ostensibly to relax in each other’s company—but also to sell underwear at marked-up prices.

Lashing out at (or perhaps just wanting to escape) the sense that her affection is not at the top of her mother’s priority list, Lala packs up and goes to her grandfather’s house in Mexico City. Relations between her grandfather and her mother are even frostier. Together, the mother’s three failed relationships—the grandfather, Lala, and Lala’s father—hints at some character flaw, perhaps, that causes people who should be closest to her to fall away. Perhaps it is her inability to understand, or put thought into, the feelings of people who love her. Her world is heavily centered around herself: she is almost more concerned with selling Victoria’s Secret than for her own daughter; she accuses Lala of “breaking my heart” for showing apparent favouritism towards her father; she is initially reluctant to tell Martin that she has a daughter at all, fearing it will ruin his “simple” image of her.

Meanwhile, in Lala, Holmes illustrates the difficulty in overcoming the feelings of detachment that a long period of separation may cause. While she treasures the fond childhood memories of her mother, in the present reality she is no longer a child and does not know how to act or feel around the other.

At first, I had been worried for them [the cliff divers], but now it seemed less real, like they were on automatic or something, or like I was watching them from very far away.

While the leaping of the divers off the cliff at Acapulco can ostensibly be interpreted as Lala ‘taking the plunge’ in coming out to her mother, it has another meaning as well. What lies below the cliffs is unknown, mysterious. When Lala chooses to ride off to Mexico City away from her mother, and for them to go their separate ways once more, she has no idea what the future holds for their relationship. And yet, despite that, leaving is strangely easy.

Rating: 3.5/5 ★