On the surface, “Atria” by Ramona Ausubel, could be seen as a young teenage girl’s experience with unwanted pregnancy; however, the story also explores perception and community. The immediate community is a family of women, the father having died before, Hazel, the main character, was born, and Hazel’s three sisters and mother. The sisters are all married with their own families, and Hazel lives alone with her mother who is preoccupied with “low-this, high-that salad[s]” and the “usual disasters” such as the city planting Marigolds while her club has ordered red, white, and blue flowers for the Fourth. The community beyond the family is the upper middle class suburb or small town in which they live. The following description comes from the sixth scene of the story and gives the reader an expansive view.
For the town, in a way, it was exciting to have an Illegitimate Bastard Baby from a Rape, because people had plenty to talk about and plenty of sympathy to dispense. They whispered in the grocery-store aisles: ‘Did you hear about that poor Whiting girl behind the church? And to think the Lord was right next door. I’m going to drop off a casserole later.’
If you could have lopped off all the pointed roofs of all the yellow-white houses and watched from above, you would have seen the top of a blond head in each kitchen, pulling hot pans out of the oven, steam rising off meat loaves and lasagnas, counters covered in empty tuna cans, the severed heads of zucchini lying in heaps. A line of station wagons streamed past Hazel’s house, full of reheatables meant to make their way from Ford and Dodge right into the stomaches of the grieving. Hazel’s mother stopped answering the door after a while. The freezer was full, the refrigerator and the mini garage refrigerator were full. Casserole dishes started to pile up on the front steps. Baked ziti baked again in the sun. Beth Berther, who could not cook even one thing, left a grocery-store cake—chocolate with chocolate frosting and the word ‘Condolences!’ scrawled in orange cursive on top.
In this description we see how the town perceives Hazel’s pregnancy, but how does she perceive it? For Hazel it’s an alien experience. She had desired to grow up fast and be an adult, but she doesn’t think of her baby as a human child. From the moment pregnancy is described, “A tiny white spine began to knit itself inside Hazel,” through the following months, and after birth, Hazel morphs her unborn baby into a menagerie of animals that live inside of her. She dreams her baby is “a glowing knot of illuminated strands.” It then “grew fur, but still shone. Pretty soon she saw its claws and its teeth, long and yellow. It had no eyes, just blindly scratched around, sniffing her cave.”
Later, “the glowing fur baby had turned itself into a large bird of prey. It spread and curled its wings…It built a nest of borrowed organs, her small intestine twisted in a pink knot, the bird’s sharp claws resting in the center. Then it started to lay eggs the size of a fist. Hazel planned sweaters with wing holes and three-pronged booties.”
The transformations continue in Hazel’s imagination, and seem to press into her consciousness. Does she really see this baby as something other than human? At the end of the story, after she has the baby, “Hazel had become aware of the baby’s arms and legs, but still saw the seal face, the slick black eyes. She could feel the whiskers brushing against her while it sucked, toothless and silent.” Hazel is in her own reality, where things are not quite what they seem. What makes this altered reality interesting is that it calls into question other events. For instance, was Hazel really raped or was the baby fathered by her encounter with the Seven-Eleven clerk, Johnny?
There are similarities between the rape scene and the sex scene with Johnny. In both of the scenes, Hazel isn’t an active participant and seems more like a bystander. There is the repetition of the sentence, “He undid pants and pants.” In a later scene, “The police came and took a description, drew a man who looked nothing like anyone Hazel had ever seen.” The thought unsettles, because I don’t want to minimize Hazel being raped; however, the way Ausubel has created the story it adds a sliver of doubt as to what is real or not.
Dark and disquieting, there are also moments of humor and beauty that juxtapose the tragedy of Hazel’s wish to “skip ahead” into adulthood which she “pictured as a small apartment kitchen far from anyone to whom she was related, furnished with upturned milk crates and exactly one full place setting.” “Atria” takes the reader into a young girl’s imagination as she navigates her desires and what it means to grow up. The story is available in the April 4th, 2011 issue of The New Yorker.