Mafe Maria: Personal stories by autism parent mentor, Maria Stultz

Ten Years in the U.S.

Somewhere in Italy, in the summer of 1996 I made up my mind…

Back home, my boyfriend awaited me. Six months before, he had gotten back from an exchange trip to the U.S., coming back very ready to marry me… or find a place and move in with me… anything to put me out of the market more officially. Those were the times we all were right out of college. Have you ever seen Reality Bites? It was exactly like that: Young people coming out to the real world, having real jobs for the first time, and starting to wonder what we really wanted to do with our lives. Something kept telling me I wasn’t ready to marry him.

A few months earlier I had experienced the only real depression I have ever had in my life. I know it was real because for three days I saw time go by as if only my body was present, but my mind was high up above the clouds looking at the world and my life as if everything was a dream, and I had just woken up to reality. “Reality” was meaningless. Nothing was important. For the first time in my entire life I realized that I wasn’t the chicken I thought I was, and that if something pushed me a little lower I could easily commit suicide. I didn’t make concrete plans to kill myself, but I thought a lot about dying. For the first time, I understood that suicide is actually an easy thing to do. I didn’t have any fear, and more importantly: I had nothing to miss.

My depression had been triggered by a casual conversation with my coffee pal, Juan Manuel. Juan and I used to go out a lot for coffee chats. We had the best and deepest conversations, and that night, a few months out of college, we dared to talk about the subject that seemed to be bothering both of us. I didn’t know how to articulate it. I kept talking about the feelings I was having, until he finally said it: I feel left behind. That was exactly it. I also felt left behind…

Everyone around me had big plans to study MBAs, or was already getting promoted to VP (an exaggeration) within months of being on their first jobs. My dad kept telling me about how he had switched jobs six times within his first year out of college, significantly increasing his salary every time. I didn’t have those ambitions. I just wanted to settle on my job and take things slowly, but all this action around me made me feel like I was far behind everyone. Juan’s words clicked perfectly and they sent me to a psychedelic place where life seemed meaningless, and I just kept telling my guardian angel to take care of my body while I was gone. I knew I would be back, so I asked him to save my body from accidents as I would drive to work and walk around like a zombie.

The depression passed, but I never forgot. Finding meaning in my life became a very important thing. I was “sleeping” again, but I wanted to remember what I had learned in the middle of the dark days. I think I still keep that in mind as I always try to live a life with personal meaning. But back then, looking at my job I knew I was in the wrong place.

I used to work as a financial planning analyst for an airline. Although I adored the friends I worked with, the job was truly awful. I would spend days analyzing stupid questions like “Why is this month’s office supplies account 11% over budget?”. My job was to find out why, and contribute to the Budget Variance report we would send to our CEO every month. As I crunched the numbers I was positive that every month, the CEO got the report, browsed the executive summary and tossed the whole thing in the trash can. It ate me inside! Then, September would come, and it would be time for the Annual Budget process: An awful period of months (including Christmas) when our staff of ten people would crunch numbers during 14-hour work days, and “pull teeth” from business owners so we could forecast the company’s expenses by month, by account, with a ridiculous amount of detail that would allow us to make monthly Budget Variance reports next year.

I had been on the job for about a year and a half, and next year’s corporate budget process was looming on the horizon. This was the time when my boyfriend was talking a lot about “getting more serious”, and unfortunately the falling-out-of-love process had already began for me. Although I loved my boyfriend and the six years we had shared together, I was also conflicted by three other men. Let’s call them the Scorpio, the Pilot, and most dangerous among all, “Sag” (as in Sagittarius) who at the time was living in Rome.

Many years earlier during a long break from the relationship with my boyfriend, Sag and I had started dating. We would send each other all kinds of signals. We were attracted to each other, but we both were very careful. We both had just gotten hurt by others. We were coming out of relationships. And we both were big cowards. We never kissed, never touched, never told, never nothing, and somehow, despite the mutual attraction and great friendship, we both went back to our previous partners. Well let me tell you: That is one of the best ways to get yourself a love ghost.

My ghost stayed around for a long, long, looong time, and casually, in the summer of 1996, my parents planned a family trip to Italy. With 3–5 days in Rome I would be able to see my ghost, the love that never was. My boyfriend dreaded that. Realizing that my feelings for him were a little shaky at the time, he told me to go on my trip and make a final decision about us. Whatever it was, he would respect it.

I went to Rome and got back. And although Sag and I spent some good times, and the attraction signals were very much alive, still nothing happened. But somewhere in the places we visited during that trip I made up my mind. I decided that I would finally break up with my boyfriend, I would quit my job, and I would take the chance that had been offered to me for ever since I was 10: I would go to learn English to my aunt and uncle’s home in the U.S. I would spend the fall of 1996 there, and by the time I came back home, Sag would also be there and it would be time to finally give us a chance. And so, on August 20, 1996 I flew out to the U.S.

What happened next is all part of the mystery of life. How stuff happens and changes our plans, and with that our lives go to unexpected places. During my sabbatical as an ESL student I liked my life. I liked the U.S. I liked the opportunities it provided. I decided that I was lucky enough to have the chance to study an MBA. My parents had offered it for years. I got interested, and being away from my love conflicts, other ideals in my life started to talk louder to me. I decided that I would attempt to get admitted in a U.S. business school. If Sag and I were meant to be, it would happen. Yet, it didn’t. Life had other plans for me…

Thanks to my generous and ambitious parents, my incredibly encouraging aunt, who opened her home (and her country) to me, and the weird fear that kept Sag and I apart, I ended up going to Duke’s business school the next fall, and somewhere in the process I met the man wearing the right shoes. I married him, and have lived in the U.S. for the last 10 years. The decision I made one sunny afternoon somewhere in Tuscany in 1996 took my life to unexpected places, and that has made all the difference.

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

The Road Not Taken, by Robert Frost


  1. On , Kim Rodriguez wrote:

    Oy weh! Already 10 years! I feel sooooo old! it seems like just yesterday you were in the kitchen painting watercolors!
    I really thought about you last week as we were busy building furniture for Monica and kids….we got Jose Luis a futon couch/bed for his room and I was telling them how you had gotten one in your apt at Duke…….

  2. On , Maria wrote:

    I still have the futon… Funny (and nice) to see how life “goes on” like that, and younger ones go through the steps you’ve been – of course, building their own stories.