"Atria" by Ramona Ausubel Originally published in the April 4, 2011 issue of The New Yorker.
Ramona Ausubel is a young author. This is her first story in The New Yorker — indeed, it is nearly her first story anywhere. Her debut novel comes out in 2012 with a collection of short stories to follow.
When I started “Atria” I was a bit worried. Hazel Whiting has just finished her freshman year, and the first few columns seemed to set up a stereotypical situation in a typical manner: Hazel is unhappy being a teen and is turned off by most teenage things, including the teenage boys. She lives with her mother, and, though they are far from hostile, there’s the familiar teenage depression and “You are such a teen-ager . . . I though I was done with this stage after your sisters went through it, and that was ages ago. Now I’m right back where I started. Couldn’t you just skip ahead?” To which Hazel answers, “Gladly.”
Fortunately, and to good effect, the story ventures away from this familiar scenario as we learn more about Hazel’s family. Hazel has three older sisters, but she is much younger; they have all moved away and have their own homes and families. We also find out that Hazel was a surprise and that her father died just before she was born:
This family had been symmetrical, a family of plans and decisions made years in advance in which Hazel was a very late, very surprising accident followed almost immediately by her father’s diagnosis. While Mother grew fatter, Father grew thinner, and everyone had felt certain that they were watching a direct transfer of life from one body to another.
Hazel and her father were never in the world together — by the time she entered, he had already closed the door behind him. Her mother was still wearing mourning black in the delivery room, surrounded by a ring of grieving daughters. The final shock came when the baby was not a boy but a girl, looking nothing like the man she was meant to replace.
Desiring to get to adulthood as quickly as possible, Hazel thinks that, “[p]erhaps, if she opened her arms to whatever came to her and stopped turning it all away, she might arrive at adulthood earlier.”
There is obviously something she could do to make her feel much more adult. It happens with a young 7-Eleven clerk in “a muddle of bushes that hid them from the road and the midday gassers and snackers.”
Hazel did not tell her mother that she had had sex with a convenience-store clerk, and that it had been disappointing but harmless — she felt no ache to see the boy again, no real change in her own body, no broken heart. She had done this grownup thing, yet she suspected that her mother would find her even more childish for it.
Again, this ventures slightly into the familiar, but I found Ausubel’s writing took the story to different levels. And then the story moves again. I want to give a brief glimpse at where the story goes after this because this is where the story became quite unique, and I believe that this avoids spoilers.
Besides her usual disdain for hanging out with other teenagers, now that Hazel has more fully entered adulthood she spends her weekend wandering around the residential neighborhoods. It happens again, after an encounter in a church parking lot, and this time it is not consensual: “Why did I agree to grow up?” Soon Hazel is pregnant and unsure who the father is. There’s a whiff of a new story line involving small town gossip, but Ausubel presents the town’s response with irony and care; in other words, she’s not criticizing the town but simply presenting a genuine response:
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.
Another turn: Hazel is sure her baby is some animal. Not a monster, necessarily, but some zoo animal. A lion, maybe, or a koala. And I ended the story content.