Yuanxia Ding was intrigued by the midday text. “Call me,” it said, the sender adding only that he had “outrageous plans” to suggest.
She hardly knew the man on the other end. But she decided to call Stuart Allen anyway.
“Listen, I think you’re an amazing woman, and I want to take you to Paris for the weekend,” he told her. Yuanxia was stunned.
They’d met only a few days earlier. Stuart, then 26, had just graduated from law school and was in New York visiting a friend who also happened to know Yuanxia and invited her to join them for a night out with his college pals. “At one point I’d finally gotten into bed, and my friend kept calling me . . . I got completely harassed into it,” she remembers.
So she made her way over to the bar at the Roosevelt Hotel. The 21-year-old captured Stuart’s attention from the start, and soon the two found themselves talking about their lives, their ideals and their dreams for the future until 6 a.m. “It was more than just, ‘This is an interesting person I met,’ ” Stuart says. “We both knew that we hoped that conversation would go longer than that one night.”
They saw each other again at a group brunch and later met up for drinks, more conversation and a kiss. But the next day, Stuart left the city to head back to Michigan.
Yuanxia had sensed something special, but she wasn’t expecting an invitation for a European weekend to come so soon — until then, she wasn’t even sure they’d ever see each other again. But Stuart was confident: “I like the ‘go big or go home’ model,” he says.
Although she wasn’t ready to take things transatlantic, Yuanxia agreed to meet him in Toronto for Memorial Day weekend. Stuart arranged for flowers, champagne and chocolate-covered strawberries to be sent to her hotel room before he arrived. They got to know each other better, falling into easy, natural talks about everything from family to politics. An amateur photographer, Stuart took pictures of her in a park. Later, they wandered into a jazz club where vocalist Kathleen Grace was performing; the music was the perfect soundtrack to their budding romance.
“It was just kind of heady and crazy,” Yuanxia says. Still, she wasn’t sure where she wanted things to go. She’d recently gotten out of a relationship, and jumping into something impetuously wasn’t in her nature; plus, he was returning to Michigan and preparing to move to California, while she planned to stay in New York. But the distance didn’t dissuade Stuart: “When my idea of a first date is to volunteer that we go to Paris, I didn’t see a little thing like cross-country as a deterrent to having something develop,” he says.
After the trip, he mailed her copies of the photographs he’d shot in the park, along with a DVD of “Before Sunrise.” When she called to thank him, she felt her reservations melting away. Her job as a management consultant sent her to Ohio, and she drove up to visit him. It had only been a few weeks since they’d met, but they told each other they were in love. “I called my best friend and I was like, ‘I’m going to marry this guy,’ ” Yuanxia says.
Their relationship was official, although complicated by distance. Stuart moved to Los Angeles to begin his law career. They talked on the phone every night, and she visited when she could, but between cross-country flights to see Stuart and constant travel for work, Yuanxia was exhausted.
She took a leap and relocated to Los Angeles to be with him. In March 2008, about a year after Yuanxia’s move to the West Coast, they took a vacation to Hawaii for Stuart’s birthday. When they arrived, flowers, sparkling cider and chocolate-covered strawberries were waiting for them in their hotel room — a surprise from Stuart and a reminder of their first trip to Toronto.
Yuanxia had long been expecting a proposal, and she saw this as a sign that it was going to happen soon. Indeed, Stuart had packed a ring and made plans to pop the question during a private dinner on the beach. But the anticipation had her overwhelmed with nerves — when would it happen? Where? How?
She woke him up from a nap and told him how anxious she was. “So I decided to just propose on the spot,” he says. Speechless and in tears, Yuanxia could hardly muster a yes.
Wedding plans would have to wait: Yuanxia was soon accepted to business school at Wharton and spent semesters in Philadelphia and summers doing internships in San Francisco and Washington, D.C. Stuart, meanwhile, tried to stay close to her on the East Coast, clerking in New Haven, Conn., and then Detroit. Returning to a long-distance arrangement was a challenge, but they made it work and drew strength from the commitment of their engagement.
Finally, Yuanxia graduated and the two found themselves back together in the District. “What I always say about long distance is that you can maintain, you can’t build,” she says. “We’d been maintaining for a while, and you start to run on fumes. It was nice to be in the same place and able to build again.”
As they reconnected, they also supported each other’s professional goals. Yuanxia, now 28, is a senior associate at McKinsey & Company working on education and social innovation initiatives. Stuart, 33, is a senior associate at Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr, and spends his free time working on projects to combat human trafficking. “We’re both able to take these things that are important to us and trying to see good done, and make that a part of what we do every day,” Stuart says.
Now settled together, they knew it was time to take the next step after their five-year engagement. On May 24, they were married at the D.C. Superior Court; two days later, they exchanged vows in the fragrance garden of the Brookside Botanical Gardens in Wheaton. The ceremony was led by the mutual friend who had inadvertently brought them together. Surrounding them were more than 80 of their family members and friends from around the country.
They served Chinese food in honor of Yuanxia’s family heritage and featured Stuart’s favorite jazz music and an ice cream bar. The couple stood together to toast their guests, but Yuanxia was confused when Stuart’s speech veered off into the tale of their “first date” in Toronto. He recalled their moments in the jazz club, and the connection they’d felt so early on. Then, to Yuanxia’s delight and amazement, he introduced Kathleen Grace, the singer they’d heard that night; Stuart had been planning the surprise appearance for nearly a year.
“Part of what romance means to me is to be able to surprise my love with the things that I know she will find wonderful,” Stuart says. “It was important to me to capture some of the magic that we had in Toronto . . . because our wedding really is coming full circle to fulfill the promise that that first date had.”