By fall 2010, Jennifer Shevchek had her life figured out. The only daughter of a single mom, she’d put herself through college, moved across country to the District, built a thriving career in health-care policy, become a Washington Wizards cheerleader and gotten a 30-year mortgage on a Chinatown condominium.
It didn’t matter that her relationships with men fizzled. “I was resigned, and I was content,” says Shevchek, a California native. “At least I told myself that. I had great friends, my own home, great career.”
And while her intense efforts at school or work or dance “resulted in really big payoffs,” she realized “that wasn’t the case with relationships. I’d give, give, give and put myself out there, and it would just flop and flop and flop.”
She decided to stop trying. She was busy with a full-time career and part-time masters program — there was no room for dead-end dating. But when a friend asked her to co-host a dinner party, she agreed. As she stood in the kitchen cooking, a late-arriving guest, James Meeks, introduced himself. And then he wouldn’t leave.
Annoyed by the interruption, she said, “Just so you know, my parents were divorced when I was 5, and I was raised Buddhist.”
“That’s interesting,” he replied without missing a beat. “I studied Buddhism during my year off from college.”
Shevchek assumed he was feeding her a line. But Meeks, who works for an international aviation company, stuck by her all night, revealing glimpses of an adventurous life. He’d worked on a farm one summer, joined the Army after graduating from Harvard, done two tours in Iraq and was injured by a roadside explosive device. He’d traveled the world and co-founded a nonprofit group to foster economic development in Tanzania.
“I was really taken. Like, ‘Wow, this guy’s unique,’ ” she says.
They talked until 3 a.m. and although Meeks could sense her guardedness, he suspected she was protecting a soft core. “I just said, ‘I’m not gonna quit until I figure this girl out,’ ” he recalls. “She was so beautiful, and I felt so sincere. And she seemed like she had so much integrity.”
The next day, Meeks, who has a pilot’s license, asked whether she wanted to go flying. She suggested dinner instead. When they walked into Jaleo, she was impressed that he’d taken the time to make a reservation and that he spoke fluent Spanish with the server.
They began to see each other regularly, but Shevchek was often anxious about the impending due date for her masters thesis. “Work was a primary focus because it paid me,” she says. “And after that was my thesis. Everything else fell by the wayside.”
Meeks knew he was being kept at bay. When he invited her to the opera, she went reluctantly and only at the instance of her aunt. After the show, they returned to his apartment, where she began to complain about her thesis. He turned on some music and asked her to dance. Once she understood that he wasn’t joking, she joined him and they danced for hours. “It was the most fun date I’ve ever had in my life,” she says.
In early November, she turned in her thesis. That weekend they spent a whole Sunday together, first going to his church, then to brunch and afternoon drinks. They wound up sitting on a bench at Georgetown’s waterfront park, talking for hours. “That was the day we both fell in love,” he says.
“For me, it was realizing how happy and complete and satiated I was in just doing the most inane, simple things,” says Shevchek, now 32. “I was like, ‘My God, I feel so happy right now. It’s just me, existing with this human being sitting right next to me. And I just feel just utterly complete.’ It’s something I never felt before.”
Meeks, also 32, was sure he had “found the real Jen” that day. “I was right,” he remembers thinking. “This girl is a lover. She is a lover, and she’s a compassionate, warm soul.” By January, Meeks was sure she was the woman he’d been looking for.
“When I was in relationships in the past, they’d always create a little panic in me. Whether there was a need from the other partner that I couldn’t fulfill or just a real nervousness about what the future would look like. Jen was the first person in my entire life where none of that panic was there,” he says. “I felt a real comfort with Jen.”
In March, he invited her to church, then for brunch, afternoon drinks and a walk in the park. She didn’t realize he was recreating their earlier date until they stopped at the same bench, which had been staked out by a friend’s mother. There, he proposed with a toy ring (the real one was yet to come).
Shevchek says she is still surprised and deeply grateful that her life didn’t go quite the way she had planned. “My whole life, I feel like I’ve just been this little fighter. I‘m like, ‘Fight, fight, fight, fight. Go, go, go, go,’ ” she says. “With him, I could be sweet and sincere and very giving in a way that I didn’t feel made me vulnerable.”
On Dec. 10, the two were married at St. Paul’s Parish, an Episcopal church in Foggy Bottom. That night, they celebrated with family and friends at the Meridian House, which was dotted with candlelight and blush flowers. While the band played “The Way You Look Tonight,” Meeks twirled and dipped his bride. The pair focused intently on each other, as if they were alone.
“It would’ve made me yak a year ago. It really would,” she says. “But when it is the right person, it just somehow works. I’m not upset. I’m not sad. I’m not questioning. I’m not feeling insecure. It was just easy. There’s no other way to describe it. It was just easy.”