For years, Keona Smith’s life revolved around her daughter, JerBria. It was always just the two of them, relying on each other for love, comfort and companionship.
Keona, an engineer, always assumed she would try to date one day, probably when JerBria went off to college. What she didn’t expect was how lonely she’d feel before that, even with her teenage daughter under the same roof.
“As she was getting older, she didn’t want to hang out with me anymore,” Keona remembers. “Want to go skating tonight?’ ‘No.’ ‘Want to do this?’ ‘No.’ I did have that sense of ‘Okay, what am I going to do?’ ”
What she mostly did was work and wait. And save up to buy her own home, spending free time with girlfriends and extended family.
Keona’s government contracting firm put her on a project at Fort Meade Army base in late 2008. At the first team meeting, she looked up to see that the project leader had his initials monogrammed on the cuffs of his shirt.
“I was like, ‘Mmmmm, this guy is arrogant,’ ” she recalls.
Eugene Carson’s first impression of her was much more favorable. Keona was the only other African American person in the room, and when she spoke, he was struck by her intelligence. “And she was very, very attractive,” Eugene says. “But I had to keep my composure with the whole team.”
For the next few months, their contact was limited to occasional cafeteria sightings and work-related e-mails. But when the team was moved into a new building, Eugene was assigned a desk near the snack bar. When Keona would sneak a sugar fix, he would offer her a little extra conversation.
“It was ‘Hey, how was your weekend?’ Then it moved to ‘You got any kids?’ ” Keona recalls.
She learned that Eugene was recently divorced and raising a 5-year-old son, Marquise. They talked frequently about their children and the challenges of parenting. They seemed to have the same values and emphasis on family life. “I was like, ‘Oh, he’s not as arrogant as I thought he was.’ The more we talked the more I became attracted to him,” she says.
Soon, they were getting to work a little early to have coffee together each morning. Keona was sure Eugene knew she was interested, but as a project manager, Eugene was worried about the appearance of impropriety.
At a book club meeting one night, a friend of Keona’s mentioned a dating book that suggested single people date all kinds of people, just to see what they like. That night, she made a decision. “I was like, ‘You know what? I’m going to stop being afraid. I’m just going to ask him if he wants to go have dinner.”
When she did, Eugene immediately said yes. They decided to meet at a restaurant in Crofton on a Friday after work. Nervous about her first date in nearly a decade, Keona rushed home to change first and stopped by a friend’s house to make sure her outfit looked just right.
At the restaurant, things felt stilted and awkward — a situation made worse when a family friend stopped by their table with a cellphone that had Keona’s aunt on the other end of the call. “She was like, ‘You’re on a date!’ ” Keona, now 38, recalls.
After a drink, they relaxed and found their normal, easy rapport. Sitting in her car after dinner, they kissed. “I knew it was a done deal — that we were probably going to be dating soon,” says Eugene, now 45.
They kept their relationship under wraps at the office, but within a few months Eugene asked to be transferred to a different project so they could keep their work and romantic lives separate.
Even as Keona was falling in love with Eugene, she found it hard to open herself fully to him. “I was afraid to be vulnerable,” says Keona, who had never married. “I was really afraid. He helped me. He said, ‘You’ve got to give it a try.”
By summer 2009, Keona arranged for Eugene to meet JerBria, who was elated that her mom had met someone special.
In 2010, Keona kept to her plans and bought a home in Brandywine, but soon they were spending every weekend together. Eugene often jokingly asked, “When are you going to marry me?” “When you have a ring and are down on one knee,” Keona always answered.
In July 2012, Eugene had a ring. After a concert in Atlantic City, they went back to their hotel room to change into more comfortable clothes. Keona was saying how much she appreciated Eugene and all he did for her. “If you appreciate me, why don’t you marry me?” he said. But she didn’t believe him until he showed the ring.
“I thank God,” she says, “that I was able to be vulnerable.”
On March 30, the first warm day of spring, Keona and Eugene exchanged vows beneath an arch of branches at Oxon Hill Manor. Their 125 guests sipped cocktails on the patio as children ran around in the gardens overlooking the Potomac River.
Back inside, JerBria, now 18, offered a toast. “We’ve been praying a long time to God to bring us a great man,” she said. “Thank you for all you’ve done for me and my mom.”