At first glance, there are few frills or fireworks in “Tatiana’s Luck,” Hannah Dreier ‘s profile of an immigrant living in a crowded New Jersey house stalked by COVID-19. In the Washington Post feature, published June 1, 2020, Tatiana Angulo waits out the final 24 hours of her visa. When the hours have elapsed and the final paragraph arrives, little is different.
And everything is.
Dreier, who has covered economic mayhem and violence in Latin America, called it “an unusually quiet story for me.” But her patient reporting shows the gathering power of small details: smooth stones collected from a walk, a wrenching video call, an ominous cough. By the end, readers of “Tatiana’s Luck” share the tension Tatiana Angulo endures in the hours before her visa expires. It’s a feat of reporting and empathy, bolstered by details only hours of reporting can uncover.
It may seem like an unsurprising accomplishment for a reporter with Dreier’s résumé. She spent three years as the Associated Press correspondent in Venezuela, and won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize in feature writing for her ProPublica series on MS-13 — and the draconian federal response to it — on Long Island. But Dreier said there was no shortage of challenges in Tatiana’s story, such as finding a subject willing to take part and immersing herself in the story as a growing pandemic lurched insistently from the background to the foreground.
“I’ve reported from some extremely violent countries, but this was by far the most anxious reporting experience I’ve ever had,” Dreier said.
Dreier said the story came from an idea from her editor, David Finkel, winner of a Pulitzer Prize and a MacArthur “Genius” Grant. She interviewed dozens of potential subjects before she found Angulo, who had come to the U.S. legally from Colombia but now lived in a fraught situation in New Jersey. As the coronavirus raged in one of the America’s hot spots, Angulo’s visa neared its expiration date.
And, as Dreier and Angulo both noticed, the man now living in the closet of Angulo’s attic room kept coughing and coughing.
Boosted by photos by Bryan Anselm, the resulting story draws readers into the fraught world occupied by Angulo, her boyfriend and a tight circle of friends and classmates. It takes place primarily on the final day before Angulo’s visa expires but uses flashbacks as well, including an emotional video call back to family in Colombia, and her refusal to talk in specifics about her soon-to-expire visa; instead she makes, as Dreier describes it, a “throat-slitting gesture” instead.
This interview with Dreier has been edited for length and clarity. It is followed by an annotation of “Tatiana’s Luck.”
How did you find Tatiana, and what drew you to her specifically as a subject for a story?
My wonderful Post editor David Finkel had the idea of trying to show what life was like in a crowded house in New Jersey while the state was a coronavirus hotspot. It felt like everyone was doing a certain kind of pandemic story there, and this could be something a little different, about what it was like to be cooped up together going on month four of quarantine. I had been an immigration reporter, and knew that immigrants tend to live doubled up in some parts of New Jersey. So I went up there and interviewed dozens of people in lines at food pantries and through community centers, trying to find the right person for the story.
I had a lot of false starts before a worker at a community center put me in touch with Tatiana. She struck me immediately because her life seemed so dynamic. She was adjusting to the fact that a man had just moved into her closet, and was also racing to try to get her visa sorted out. So the story shifted quite a bit to be about someone who felt like she was making it in the US before the virus hit, and was now in the process of re-adjusting all of her expectations. It’s so often my experience that an idea sounds good in the office, and then when I actually start reporting, I run into a story I could never have imagined before I got on the ground.
Was COVID-19 a major element of the story as initially conceived, or did it change during the reporting process?
We always wanted the social and economic effects of the pandemic to be part of the story, but I didn’t think I would come so close to the virus itself. When I was interviewing potential characters, I eliminated a half a dozen people who seemed really interesting, but had gotten the virus, or had sick roommates. I just didn’t see how I could safely report in a house where people were sick with COVID. Of the eight people in Tatiana’s house, only the mother and the baby were sick when I started reporting this story, and it seemed like they just had a mild cold. But by the time I left New Jersey, the sickness had spread from room to room to everyone in the house, and was looking a lot like COVID-19.
This is such an intimate story; readers are present with Tatiana and her hopes and fears throughout. What was the reporting process like to get that level of detail?
Well, I definitely didn’t go in saying I wanted to write a 4,000-word story about her life. Initially, I just tried to get to know Tatiana and let her get to know me. That meant a lot of phone calls and texting, and sitting with her, sometimes at the beach and sometimes in her room. There’s no substitute for that kind of time, and I’m really lucky at the Post to be able to report over the course of weeks instead of days.
Tatiana was in such an urgent moment in her own life, her hopes and fears were always on her mind. When she talked with her friends and family, she was naturally talking about how desperate she was to find work, or how she might still realize her dreams if she could figure out how to keep her legal status.
I tend to worry about people giving me too much access, or forgetting that I’m a reporter and thinking that I’m their friend, because I seem so interested in their lives the way a friend would be. So I tried to always have my notebook and recorder visible, and checked in a lot to make sure Tatiana really understood and was comfortable with all this private detail appearing in a national newspaper.
In what ways did your reporting background help you when reporting this particular story? Did you have any previous experience that was particularly useful?
I don’t think I could have done this story if I didn’t speak Spanish. Tatiana spoke OK English, but all the conversations in the house and with her family and friends were in Spanish. And it would have been hard to justify the safety risks of bringing in a translator. I knew from past immigration reporting that the undocumented people in the house would probably be worried about whether I was going to try to use their names or take their pictures, so I was proactive about explaining the focus of the story to them. Part of me felt like I should also shield Tatiana’s identity even though she said she didn’t want that. But after talking it through with my editor and thinking back through past stories I’d written about undocumented immigrants, I realized that it was very unlikely that the story would get her in trouble with Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, and it would be infantilizing to try to make that choice for her.
Did the story change much, if at all, during the editing process?
This was a really new kind of reporting for me, because I’m used to writing reconstructed scenes, and this was all immersion, meaning that I was sitting right there for almost all of it. David Finkel is the absolute master of immersion reporting, and he was so involved in every step of the process, from settling on Tatiana as the main character to figuring out how each section of the story would work, that by the time he was actually editing a written-through draft, we were pretty much on the same page. I did struggle with whether the story should take place all on one day with flashbacks, or over the course of two weeks, starting on the first day I met Tatiana. I tried sketching it out both ways, and there was just clearly more tension when I started the story on the morning of her last legal day in the U.S.
Is there anything you learned while reporting or writing that will be helpful to you in the future? Or may be helpful to other journalists?
Like everyone, I’m still learning how to report during a pandemic. I went into this story unsure about how I was going to build trust with someone who could only see half of my face. (Following Tatiana’s cues, I wore my mask even when we were outside and standing far apart.) I think that the mask was a bit off-putting initially, but in the end it also helped in some ways, because I was showing respect for Tatiana’s safety and her space. This was also an unusually quiet story for me. I worried at first that there wouldn’t be enough drama on this one day in Tatiana’s life to pull a reader through so many thousands of words. There was a lot going on in Tatiana’s head, but she basically spent that day sitting in an attic by herself. The response from readers really reassured me that people will stick with a story if it puts them in someone else’s shoes, even if it’s a story with a lot of stillness.
The annotation: Storyboard’s questions are in red; responses from Dreier in blue. To read the story without annotations, click the ‘Hide all annotations’ button, which you’ll find just below the social media buttons in the top right-hand menu, or at the top of your mobile screen.
She came to the U.S. legally and was trying to do everything right. Then came the coronavirus.
By Hannah Dreier
June 1, 2020
ASBURY PARK, N.J. — On her last legal day in the United States, Tatiana Angulo awoke before sunrise in her attic bedroom and listened for a few moments to the sounds of what her life had become. I was particularly impressed with this first sentence because it immediately introduces the moment of change that’s about to arrive for Tatiana. Were you always going to open with the first moments of this particular day, or did it change during writing or editing? We wanted to establish from the start that this was the day she was going to cross a boundary from having legal status to being undocumented. Finkel and I talked about maybe starting the story with the strange man moving into the closet, as the first sign things were about to fall apart, but that didn’t work once we decided to set the whole story on this last day. Her boyfriend, Pablo Ruiz, was still sleeping next to her. He would be up soon, telling her what she already knew, that when midnight came, “things are going to be different for you,” but for now, what she heard was the unsettling sound of someone coughing in one of the bedrooms downstairs, and more coughing from the closet next to her room, where a man had recently begun living because he had nowhere else to go. You get us into Tatiana’s thought process here; how much did you speak with her? How were you able to get her to walk us through her thoughts? I asked her as soon as I came over early that morning who had gotten up first, what she had thought about, etc. I had spent enough time with her at that point in the reporting process that she had gotten used to these super specific questions. And I’d also spent enough time in the room to know that the coughing was pretty constant, and really worrying to her. I find that the more time I spend with sources, the more I am able to intuitively understand some things about their experience, which I hope makes the hyper-detailed questions a little less annoying for them.
In all, there were eight people in the little house, eight people crammed together because of the coronavirus, including the man in the closet, the man coughing downstairs in the bedroom he shared with his nephew, and a husband and wife and baby running a fever in another bedroom. How much, if at all, did you interact with the other residents? I actually interacted a fair amount with them, though I used almost none of that material in the story. I tried to keep my distance in the house, because of the virus. But I interviewed them all separately on the porch one day, in part because I wanted them to know that I was a journalist doing this story, and to make sure they were OK with that.
Was it the virus? No one was sure. But it was something, so Tatiana waited. Everything had to be choreographed in the house now, and only when it was quiet did she go downstairs to make Pablo breakfast, hoping that no one would be there.
“You’ll need to be more careful now,” Pablo told her as he got dressed for work. You’re sparing with quotes early on in this story; this is the only one in the first 14 paragraphs. Why was it so important to include? I liked this because it underlines the visa question, which is going to be the main tension of the day, and because he’s talking to Tatiana, so it helps the reader stay in Tatiana’s head. In my first years as a reporter, I used to report toward quotes, but now I try to report toward scene and emotion, and I use far fewer actual quotations in my stories.
By 7 a.m., he was gone. Theirs was a densely packed neighborhood of immigrants, where the people still lucky enough to be working had jobs in construction and landscaping. As Pablo joined them, Tatiana saw him off from the front porch and then, mindful of his advice, returned to the attic.
There were so many ways the pandemic was changing lives, especially those of Latino immigrants, who have been getting sick and dying in numbers that increasingly outstrip their share of the population. Latinos now account for more cases of the coronavirus than any other group in cities across the country, and in immigrant-heavy states such as New Jersey, they make up 20 percent of the population but 30 percent of the infections. Because of the virus, they have been disproportionately losing their health, livelihoods and immigration status, all of which Tatiana could feel slipping away a year after coming to the United States legally on a visa with the intention of doing everything right. You sum up the virus’s disproportionate threat toward immigrants succinctly here. Was there any debate — among editors or just with yourself — on how deep to dive into statistics or a general summing-up before getting back to Tatiana? This is such a good question! My editor had to really rein me in from putting too many numbers here. I filed the story with a lot more context — explaining Trump’s crackdown on immigrant visas during the pandemic and how 86 percent of Latinos can’t work from home, the highest proportion of any group. But Finkel reminded me that we just needed enough context to explain why Tatiana’s story matters in this moment, and then get back to her without a whole notebook dump.
Tatiana’s luck: The state where she had moved was now one of the hotspots of the virus. The restaurant where she had found work had closed. The house in which she lived was filled with sick people. And, with only a few hours left to figure out how to stay in the United States, she was now sitting on her bed coughing and sneezing and telling herself, “It’s just some stress.”
To calm her nerves, she did a set of deep-breathing exercises she had learned in yoga class.
More sounds from the house. The man in the closet should have been at work already, but she heard him walking up the narrow attic stairs. She waited until he shut his door. Then she went down to take a shower. Safety is on everyone’s mind. What kind of steps did you take (masks, etc.) to keep yourself and others safe while reporting? I’ve reported from some extremely violent countries, but this was by far the most anxious reporting experience I’ve ever had. I was so worried about catching the virus or getting my sources sick. I tried to game out whether there was another way to report the story, maybe by using video chat or reconstructing scenes, but in the end I decided that the only way to really show what it was like for this woman in the attic was to be there with her. Tracy Grant at the Post was great about getting me all sorts of PPE before I left for New Jersey. I wore a mask and gloves whenever I was reporting, and tried to position myself by open windows. I also quarantined for two weeks before and after, and sort of miraculously, I never got sick.
Thirteen months earlier, before the virus existed, she had been living in Colombia with no intention of ever leaving. Despite growing up poor, she had won a scholarship to one of the country’s most elite universities and, after graduating, had found satisfying work on an anti-corruption task force. By 32, she was married, with three children and a large house. But her husband grew controlling, she said. He made her stop working and seeing friends. One day, she said, he slammed her into a wall in front of the kids. At the police station, Tatiana saw a poster listing indicators of domestic abuse. She realized she met every one.
She filed for divorce and was horrified when a judge granted her husband custody of the children, at least until Tatiana could show financial independence and provide a home for them. A job in Colombia would never provide the money quickly enough, so at the urging of a friend in New Jersey who offered a couch if she could get there, she applied for a tourist visa to the United States and soon was on her way to Asbury Park, a rapidly gentrifying beach town where a new version of possibilities quickly fell into place: a job in the kitchen at a white-tablecloth restaurant on the boardwalk, a co-worker with an attic to rent in a Victorian, a chef named Pablo who was sweet in a way her ex-husband never had been. He brought Tatiana flowers and appreciated her exuberance and curiosity. Tatiana is the center of the story, but you get us in her boyfriend’s mind briefly here. How much were you able to talk to him? Was getting him to talk to you different than getting Tatiana to? Pablo was brought to the U.S. as a child and was much more guarded than Tatiana. It took a long time to build a rapport with him, but once he bought into the story, he was all in. He asked after this piece ran if I’d want to write another story called Pablo’s Luck. Together, they were making $2,000 a week, enough to send hundreds of dollars to her family each month and put more away as savings to buy a house in Colombia.
The attic was small, with no bathroom and just enough space for a bed, a dresser and a TV, but Tatiana enjoyed having the floor to herself and decorated the small window under the eaves with a couple of small American flags. Sometimes, she watched the baby downstairs and shared meals with the others in the house. In February, with three months left on her legal permission to be in the country, she realized that if she could get an educational visa and stay longer, she could earn what she needed to regain custody. She applied to a technical school that she thought would give her a visa, and while waiting to hear back, continued her routine of walking along the beach in the morning, working until midnight, coming home to the attic and watching CNN as a way to practice her English.
That was how she first heard about the coronavirus. This is one of my favorite sentences, because it neatly transitions from Tatiana’s drive to become an immigrant to the virus. How mindful were you of making this transition from the former to the latter? Oh, thanks for noticing! I was mostly mindful of trying to make that transition quickly. I was really interested in Tatiana’s backstory and the way things had worked out for her against all the odds, but I wanted to get to the virus as soon as I could because this is really a story about the pandemic, not about coming to America. Every day brought more stories, and she grew worried, but it wasn’t until mid-March, when the virus forced her restaurant to close, that it became clear that the pandemic threatened everything she had been working to achieve.
With no income, her savings began shrinking. When her visa application hit a snag, she couldn’t get anyone on the phone to help sort it out. When the couple who held the lease told the man with nowhere to stay that he could temporarily rent the attic closet for $300 a month, she moved her clothes out to make room for him. And when it became clear he wouldn’t be leaving any time soon, she didn’t complain because her options in life had now become no job, no income and nowhere to go except the attic, where she was now folding her clothes into a suitcase and laughing at the things she had brought to the United States a year before, a time when she was filled with so many expectations. “I didn’t have a clue what to pack, so I brought my nicest clothes,” she said, looking at the dress she had worn to her college graduation.
She closed the suitcase. The house rattled as a train passed and she looked out the window toward the nearby station. She unwrapped a fresh piece of chewing gum, which she was increasingly depending on to fight off hunger pangs that had been building since she lost her job. She noticed her passport and picked it up, flipping to her U.S. visa with its illustration of the Lincoln Memorial.
“When I first saw it, I thought it looked like money,” she said. This quote stuck with me. Why did you want to include it? I just really liked it when she said it. I always try to listen for when people talk in original metaphors and similes. And this one seemed to capture her thought process in just a few words.
Sixteen hours now until it expired. How deliberate were you about reminding readers of the “ticking clock” here? This is here for exactly that reason, to remind readers about that tension, and also to give that quote some more space. This story has so many movements back and forth in time, it seemed important to keep locating readers in this day. There are a couple details that come later, about the time of day or the light, that are there for the same reason.
“When you get a chance like this, you have to take it. And I almost made it work,” she said.
Through the wall came a wheezing sound. The man in the closet was apparently staying home from work for the day. He had introduced himself as Chucho when he moved in, and that was all Tatiana knew about him. Mostly he stayed in the windowless closet, which was just big enough for a piece of foam to sleep on. Sometimes he left the door open and Tatiana could see him in there, a shadow sitting on the mattress beneath the rod where her clothing had hung. Usually the door was shut and she knew he was in there only by the sounds coming through the wall. “Coughing,” she said of what she had been hearing lately. And now wheezing.
More sounds as the morning passed.
“Shut up! Shut up!” Tatiana heard through the floor. It was coming from the bedroom below, where the baby’s mother was talking on speakerphone to someone whose voice Tatiana could not make out.
“Shut up!” Tatiana heard again.
And then she heard the baby start to cry and the mother cooing, “What, baby? What?”
A week before, the mother and baby had both developed fevers. Because her husband was at work, the mother had asked Pablo to pick up medicine. He was home that day from his temporary job on a construction crew and had been happy to help, in part because he and Tatiana had not paid their share of the rent for more than a month. New Jersey had adopted an eviction ban, but their situation still felt precarious. The medicine hadn’t seemed to work, though. A few days later, the mother was complaining of chills and a bad sore throat. She withdrew into her bedroom, and Tatiana and Pablo withdrew to the attic, promising each other they would be disciplined about keeping their distance from the others in the house, who were still going to work and inviting people over.
“They’re just not careful,” Tatiana said to Pablo.
“It would be nice to be able to go down and cook, though,” Pablo said. Much of this story takes place on Tatiana’s last day as a legal immigrant, but here you go back a week. Why was it important for the story to do that? The frame of the story is this single day, but the story is really about what Tatiana’s life has become as a result of the pandemic, not just on this last day, but during this whole period of lockdown. I also wanted to show a bit of how the virus had spread through the house, to get to the point where on this last legal day, everyone is sick.
He mentioned that the restaurant owner had called and said he was hoping to reopen in a month. “Possibly,” Pablo said. “If it wasn’t for all this, we’d be working seven days a week right now. We’d be going for a little night swim when we got off. How nice would that be?”
Through the wall, they could hear the man in the closet talking with his wife back in Mexico.
“And the baby with that fever,” Tatiana said. “Did you hear her crying in the middle of the night?”
Pablo said he had, and then he fell silent and showed Tatiana his phone. The baby’s father was texting him from downstairs, asking why they were talking about his family. Tatiana and Pablo exchanged a look, and Pablo turned up the volume on the TV. This is terrific at capturing the tight quarters — and tension — of the situation Tatiana and Pablo find themselves in. How did you report this specific scene? I was in the attic for this scene and I’d spent enough time with them by this point that they were sort of ignoring me and just catching up with each other. I think if I had asked Tatiana how it was going with the tight quarters, she might have said it was tense, but wouldn’t have thought to tell me these details (or even remembered this conversation). With a lot of this story, the reporting came down to just being there for big chunks of time until something interesting or telling happened.
Sometimes the attic could seem even smaller than it was. That day, Tatiana had felt desperate for space, so she’d left the house on her own for the first time since the restaurant closed. She walked over the train tracks and kept walking past blocks of three-story mansions with wraparound porches, past bookstores and boutiques and art galleries with rainbow flags, until she reached the beach. She’d stood with her feet in the sparkling water, wearing disposable gloves from the restaurant and a painter’s mask even though there was no one around, and spread her arms wide, enjoying the feel of the warm breeze. Then she stopped by the restaurant and cupped her hands around her eyes to peer through a window. She wanted to see the framed magazine article about Pablo’s career as a chef and a newspaper clipping describing the restaurant as the most beautiful in Asbury Park. I was struck by the detail of the walk Tatiana takes (the wraparound porches, the rainbow flags). Were you there when she took this walk or did you travel it yourself later to get detail? This day, I met up with her on the beach and then walked back to the house with her. I saw her from a distance and noticed she was wearing her mask on this totally empty beach, and was struck by how careful she was being. I also did this walk myself a few times, just decompressing after reporting days. This was my first reporting trip during the pandemic, and it was strange to not be able to go to cafes or restaurants like I normally would, but I do think I probably saw more of the town as a result.
A few days later, she’d gone back to the beach again, this time with a friend named Yesenia Sarria. Together, they walked along the miles-long waterfront, collecting smooth white rocks to decorate their rented rooms as they vented to each other about the rising tensions in their houses.
Tatiana showed her friend the text messages the baby’s mother had sent her after her husband’s message to Pablo. “Keep your head up. Know I always love you,” the mother had written. “Me too,” Tatiana had written back. But she still felt self-conscious about having missed rent.
“Morally, you feel bad when you know you haven’t paid your share,” she said. “I’m not used to being that person.”
Yesenia nodded. She was also struggling to make rent without access to unemployment or stimulus benefits. “It’s so uncomfortable,” she said.
Tatiana wondered aloud if she would have been better off returning to Colombia, where at least she could visit her children, prompting Yesenia to reassure her that she was doing the right thing by staying. Yesenia reminded her how amazed she’d been when Tatiana managed to get a visa.
“That’s not an easy thing, to get to the U.S.,” Yesenia said. “You have to try, because you’ve been given everything. Everyone in Colombia wants the American Dream.”
They looked up and down the empty beach. Tatiana remembered how scared she had been when she first came.
“People always said there was lots of drug addiction here,” she said.
“And crazy people, like in the movies,” Yesenia said.
“But then you get here and it’s just normal. Beautiful,” Tatiana said. Some of this dialogue is paraphrased, some recounted exactly. Was it much work to get it into its final form? I came back to this section a few times looking for ways to cut some of these quotations, but in the end they all seemed important to show why Tatiana was deciding to stay in the U.S. despite her fears of living here without legal status. I liked that the friend was talking about the American Dream, because it would have felt too cheesy to insert that phrase into the story in my own words, but felt OK coming up organically in this conversation between two immigrants. Finkel once told me that the most affecting parts of quotations are often the throwaway words people put at the beginning and end of sentences, so I was listening for that, too. Like the “beautiful” at the end of this one.
Now, back in her room, the mother quiet, the baby quiet, the man in the closet quiet, she wondered if she would still want to walk on the beach once tomorrow came. Would it feel too risky without legal status? She remembered the two policemen she had seen posted at the boardwalk entrance, there to monitor social distancing. This story flashes back several times. How much work went into making sure the reader was oriented throughout? This was the time jump I was most worried might get confusing. I tried to have lots of signposts to help the reader follow the thread of that last day. Here, we did a sort of “Goodnight Moon” check in with everyone in the house. I also wrote the story in a strange way. I started by writing through the last day with no flashbacks or exposition, as if it was a standalone story, and then worked with Finkel to figure out where to cut away and add in these jumps back in time.
Perhaps there was still time to figure out a solution. Tatiana made a video call to her mother in Colombia and listened to the phone ring. “I am calling, and you don’t answer me,” she sang aloud to herself as the phone kept ringing, then stopped, realizing her voice was carrying through thin walls and floorboards.
She dialed again, and this time her mother picked up. “And how are you?” she asked Tatiana.
“Good. Here at home,” Tatiana said, mentioning nothing else about what home had become.
Her 6-year-old, Elah, was visiting and grabbed the phone. “Hi, Mommy. Where are you?”
“I’m here at home, my love,” Tatiana said. “How are you? How did you sleep?”
Elah swung the phone around, showing a blur of a neat house. She told Tatiana she was doing her homework, making sure to wash her hands carefully and making plans for when Tatiana came back. “I’ll hug you and ask you what presents you brought me,” she said.
Tatiana felt like crying when she hung up. “It’ll probably be two years now before I see them again. That’s what I tell myself, anyway,” she said. “I don’t think I could take more.” If only the educational visa had worked out, she said. If the offices she called again and again hadn’t been closed because of the virus, or if the person who did answer by chance one time had been able to speak Spanish, she could have gone back to visit, but once tomorrow came, she would have to stay until she was ready to leave the United States for good, or until she was deported.
“Better not to think about it and just focus on right now,” she said. But then on impulse, she decided to see if she had enough money to fly back that day. Sitting on her bed, she looked up the website for Colombia’s largest airline. “Wow,” she said.
Because of the pandemic, the company had filed for bankruptcy the day before.
“No more flights.”
She shuddered and grabbed onto her stomach, which suddenly hurt.
“Butterflies,” she said.
Now there was a rich, savory smell coming into the room. Someone was in the kitchen cooking. It was mid-afternoon, and Tatiana realized she hadn’t eaten all day.
She waited again until it was quiet before going downstairs and was surprised when she ran into the young man who lived in the bedroom with his uncle. He was by himself, drinking a beer, leaning against a wall. Tatiana knew that he and the uncle had both fallen sick in the past few days. He had a feverish look, shiny-eyed and sweaty.
The little house was getting sicker and sicker. She tried to keep her distance from the nephew as she spooned out cold rice from a container. Before the pandemic, she had been on a health kick, eating egg-white omelets and tacos wrapped in lettuce instead of tortillas. These days, when they could afford groceries, she and Pablo bought rice and beans. The restaurant had let them take home some produce when it shut down, and she was surveying what remained — one last tomato, an onion, a single apple — when the nephew came up behind her. She tensed. He reached over her to get something in a cabinet, bumping her shoulder.
She ate the rice in her room, door closed, TV on, waiting for Pablo to come home. When a familiar commercial came on, she sang along with the jingle. “Liberty, liberty, liberty!” she sang. “Liberty.” It was one of the ways she practiced English, a complement to the lessons she had been taking twice a week through a community center. This is an incredible detail, particularly given the word that’s being repeated; did you know it would make it into the story as soon as it happened? Yes, even though it’s right on the edge of corny, when I heard it, I thought it was too relevant not to put in. I also liked that it was a moment of spontaneous levity. Tatiana struck me as a really resilient person, and even though she was pretty despairing and anxious during the time I spent with her, she was also always looking for ways to cheer herself up, however briefly. So I wanted to try to show that.
The virus had changed those, too. They were online now as video chats, but she had kept up with them faithfully, even the one a few days earlier that had started just after her ex-husband had called her from Colombia, berating her for falling behind on her remittances to the children.
“I thought you went to that country to make money,” he had said.
“No one knew this was going to happen,” she told him, trying to calm him down like she used to when they were together.
“You abandoned us,” he told her before hanging up.
After the call, Tatiana hugged her knees to her chest and cried and decided she would transfer the last of her savings to Colombia that afternoon. “And then there will be nothing left,” she said. She wanted to splash water on her face before joining the class but didn’t want to risk going downstairs, so her eyes were still red when she signed on, red enough that another student, Carlos Romero, noticed and asked if she was okay.
“I need to work. My visa is about to — ” she said, and made a throat-slitting gesture, mindful of the thin walls. This is an incredibly tense story to read, given the ticking clock, the feeling of being watched. Did it affect you at all while reporting? I did feel a lot of pressure, because of the virus, the tense feeling in the house, the fact that it was my first try at this kind of immersion reporting, and the importance of making sure Tatiana really understood the implications of participating in the article. Of course, it was also a total privilege to get to see so close up how Tatiana and Pablo were navigating the situation, and a lot of what I saw felt pretty inspiring. The Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma has great resources that I use all the time when I feel close to getting burned out. I followed one of their recommendations while I was reporting this story, and tried to tune out the news while I was in New Jersey, because the news was all so upsetting, and I felt like the story was already putting me in a dark place.
The class was about to begin. Other students were signing on from their own cramped bedrooms. One was in the back seat of a car. Quickly, Carlos mentioned that he worked as a maintenance man in a nursing home and that because of the pandemic, there were openings.
“But I don’t have papers,” Tatiana said.
“Right now, I don’t know if you need papers,” Carlos said. “We need workers. The manager for housekeeping? Coronavirus. The manager for the kitchen? Coronavirus. The manager for marketing? Coronavirus. Residents? Maybe 15 with coronavirus. Three or four pass away. More in the hospital. Me? No coronavirus yet. Or maybe, coronavirus, no symptoms.” I like this dialogue by Carlos. How did you record his quotes here? I asked the teacher if I could sit in on the Zoom class this day. I signed in and said hello, and then put myself on mute with no video, to try to not be too obtrusive. I think this is the only dialogue in the story that’s not translated from Spanish, and I liked how you can hear that Carlos is still learning some English.
Think about it, he said, as the teacher appeared, and Tatiana was thinking about the chance for a work permit, or at least the ability to pay rent, as the teacher said to the class that the day’s lesson would be about making purchases. “Let’s practice the pronunciation of some words,” she said.
“Please repeat: ‘merch-an-dise.’ ”
“Merch-an-dise,” Tatiana said, and then she sent Carlos her phone number, to be put in touch with his manager.
Now, as she sat on the bed, still waiting for Pablo to come home, door still closed, TV back off, her phone rang, but it was Carlos, not the manager. It turned out she did need papers after all.
“Thanks anyway for trying,” she said.
She hung up and saw a message from someone who had been trying to help her sort out her visa problems: Yes, the government had received her request, but with everything on hold because of the pandemic, they were not going to be able to process a visa adjustment in time. In other words, her visa would be canceled the moment she overstayed, and if she was caught by law enforcement, she’d be deported and banned from coming back to the United States.
“Just telling you so that you know,” the woman had written.
It wasn’t a surprise, but it had been a last bit of hope, and with that gone now, Tatiana began going through the calculations of what her life was about to become. How would she pay taxes when she was undocumented? How would she be able to get a driver’s license? “It’s a whole world I don’t understand,” she said. She shivered and put on a sweatshirt. One thing she did know was that she could not use any kind of public service because of a Trump administration rule from February that blocked immigrants who used state benefits from getting visas and green cards. It was one reason the others in the house hadn’t gone to the hospital to get their symptoms checked, and why she wouldn’t go either, if it came to that.
“I can’t get sick now,” she said.
Sundown — and here came Pablo. She could hear him coming up the narrow steps. The door opened. He was smiling his shy smile and carrying a spray of blue flowers from the garden of the house he was working on. She made him dinner and set the flowers in a water glass by the TV, near the smooth stones from her beach walk. They turned off the lights. They watched some movies. They heard the man in the closet wheezing. They heard the baby crying. “I guess you’re stuck with me now,” she said to Pablo at one point. Eventually they stopped talking and fell asleep, and when she awoke, she was in the country illegally. You pull together a lot of details from earlier that have greater resonance now: the stones, the ominously coughing housemate. Did you consider ending the story here? I love this question. I often think stories could end one section earlier. And this did seem like a natural ending. But I had this scene from the next morning where Tatiana is still trying to learn English even though her prospects have changed so dramatically, and where she is starting to get sick. I wanted to include both of these elements, and also show a tiny bit of what her life is going to be like beyond the boundary that she crossed on that last legal day.
She listened in the dark to the house. It was quiet. She went downstairs to the kitchen. No one was there. She grabbed the last apple, which she had been saving as a treat for Pablo, and took it up to the attic.
“Where did you get this?” he asked when he woke up and saw it.
“I’ve been saving it for you,” she said.
She packed it for him to take to work, and as he pulled on his construction boots, he mentioned that he was feeling achy.
She watched him finish getting dressed. Even if he was getting sick, they decided, he should go to work because they needed the money. Yesterday, she had watched him leave from the front porch. Now she said goodbye in the attic, closing the door when he left and looking around in silence at the place where her year in the United States had brought her.
Clothes in a suitcase. A fistful of flowers already starting to wilt. A view out a window of a street, in a city, in a country that yesterday was feeling normal and beautiful and today was feeling forbidding.
This was her life now, and as the morning passed, and the baby downstairs was once again crying and the man in the closet was once again stirring, she wondered what she could do with such a life, right up until it was time for her English class.
She decided to dial in. Just because. Just in case.
“Please repeat after me,” the teacher was saying. “Bar-be-cue.”
“Bar-be-cue,” Tatiana said.
“Pic-nic,” the teacher said.
“Pic-nic,” Tatiana said.
Her voice sounded raspy. She got up to make sure the window was closed.
“I can’t wait,” the teacher said.
“I can’t wait,” Tatiana said, alone now, a woman in an attic.
Her palms were clammy. Her throat hurt. She felt her forehead and wondered if she had a fever coming on.
“Looking forward to it,” said the teacher.
“Looking forward to it,” repeated Tatiana. Why did you choose this particular moment for the end? I wanted to include the class because it’s sort of hopeful. Even though Tatiana’s visa has expired, she’s out of work, she has very little going for her, she still is trying to learn English for this life she wishes were possible. And I also wanted to indicate that this whole other thing is coming her way — the virus. After I left New Jersey, Tatiana did get very sick with what she assumed was Covid-19 spread by the people downstairs, and it took her a few weeks to recover. I thought about expanding the story to include that, but it would have made this into more of a straight virus story, I think. When it ran, people wrote to ask if they could send Tatiana medicine, and if her health had improved, and more than one reader wrote in to ask if she had died. Finkel and I also went back and forth about ending on “‘Looking forward to it,’ repeated the woman in the attic,” but eventually decided that last line would feel unnecessarily flashy. For me, the whole process was a lesson in the power of understatement.
Trevor Pyle is a staff writer at the Skagit Valley Herald, a daily newspaper north of Seattle. A longtime Washington state resident, he has covered education, news and sports in his career.