Tatiana’s luck

She came to the U.S. legally and was trying to do everything right. Then came the coronavirus.

Tatiana’s luck

She came to the U.S. legally and was trying to do everything right. Then came the coronavirus.
Tatiana Angulo walks along the boardwalk in the New Jersey town of Asbury Park, where she moved from Colombia. (Bryan Anselm for The Washington Post)

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. 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.

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.

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.

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.

Tatiana’s luck: The state where she had moved was now one of the hot spots 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.

* * *

Tatiana has been living with her boyfriend in the attic of a Victorian house. (Bryan Anselm for The Washington Post)

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. 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. 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.

Sixteen hours now until it expired.

“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.

* * *

Tatiana often hears coughing and wheezing from a man living in a closet next to her room. (Tatiana Angulo)
Tatiana sits on the porch where she sees her boyfriend off in the mornings. (Bryan Anselm for The Washington Post)
LEFT: Tatiana often hears coughing and wheezing from a man living in a closet next to her room. (Tatiana Angulo) RIGHT: Tatiana sits on the porch where she sees her boyfriend off in the mornings. (Bryan Anselm for The Washington Post)

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Tatiana talks on a video chat with her children, who live in Colombia with their father. (Tatiana Angulo) (N/A/Handout)

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.

* * *

Tatiana and boyfriend Pablo Ruiz sit outside the restaurant where they worked, which has been closed since mid-March. (Bryan Anselm for The Washington Post)

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.

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.

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.”

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.

* * *

Tatiana enjoys walking along the beach, which was part of her daily routine when she was working. (Bryan Anselm for The Washington Post)

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.

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