LEALMAN — Zak Lewis wanted to propose to Nicole Gordy on their first date.
But the 18-year-old soldier swallowed the words, letting them simmer internally as their young relationship blossomed through countless text messages, phone calls and secret outings.
He hid his true feelings for all of two weeks before he said, "I love you" and then, "Will you marry me?" She said yes.
They told their parents it was love at first sight.
Carol Howard was stunned. Her only son, her baby, wanted to get married to a near stranger? And, in a more troubling development, he wanted to do it right away, before he was deployed to Iraq in December.
Howard, 40, had little cash and no time to save enough to give him the wedding he deserved.
Desperate, she turned to the Internet:
"We are in need of things for a soldiers wedding," began the message she posted on craigslist earlier this month. "He will be getting married on November 27 and going off to serve in the war on Iraq on December 12. If you have any wedding decorations or anything for a wedding reception please help us help this soldier."
• • •
Lewis, now 19, doesn't know about his mother's public plea.
He believes he is getting married Friday in a simple ceremony on the beach without any trimmings.
He insisted he and Gordy, 23, write their own vows.
"Everyone else does the regular yada, yada, thing," he told a reporter. "I like to be different."
(His mother told him he was being interviewed for a wedding announcement in the newspaper. Her wedding planning will be a surprise gift.)
Lewis, a graduate of Community Christian High School in Largo, said he was looking forward to the wedding night.
Then he got serious.
"She's a great person, attractive, she's a good cook, and I love her," he said. "She put's up with all my bull----, and that's a lot to put up with."
• • •
It goes without saying that the couple's courtship has been an unusual one.
Still, it's not such an unfamiliar tale.
He saw her profile on www.myyearbook.com, a social networking site. Her photo showed an attractive woman. She was older than him, and he was tired of dating immature teenagers.
He was on leave from basic training in Fort Stewart in Georgia. His mother was working. He was bored.
He messaged Gordy nonstop: "Let's meet."
She gave him her number because he was cute. They met that night. He took her out for ice cream. They walked on the beach for hours, trading stories and personal minutia.
They met again the next day, and the day after that.
For two weeks, they stole away to see each other whenever they could.
He thought she was funny, smart, and sweet.
There's nothing not to like about him, she said.
The last Saturday night he was in town, they went skinny dipping on Madeira Beach after dark. A jellyfish stung his side, sending them running out of the water.
As they dressed, the proposal finally spilled out, "Will you marry me?"
Gordy laughed. Surely he was joking.
They waited two days, until he was back at the base, before they told their parents.
Gordy's mother didn't speak to her for a week. Other relatives also tried to talk them out of it.
But when Lewis came home for his next visit, he immediately dragged his mother to a jewelry shop. He purchased a modest three-stone ring. With all their relatives gathered on Gordy's lawn, he proposed again, on one knee.
Again, Gordy said yes.
In the two months since they met, they've become inseparable. He text messages her during drills. She calls him every morning at 5:30 a.m. to wake him up.
Gordy, a stay-at-home mother who attended Armwood High School in Seffner, introduced Lewis to her four children from a previous six-year relationship. "They like him better than me sometimes," Gordy said.
He said he is excited about his new, instant family.
Still, Gordy was nervous. She wanted to postpone the wedding until he returned from his tour in Iraq. She needed time to prepare herself mentally and emotionally.
He wouldn't wait. He worried something would happen to him or she would find someone else.
"I don't want him to go," Gordy said. "I tell him he just better come back."
Gordy and Lewis both come from longtime military families. He announced he was joining the Army at his older sister's military graduation when he was 17. He then dropped nearly 70 pounds to meet the enlistment requirements. His uncle also was in the military. Gordy's brother was in the National Guard.
They both know what may lie ahead.
At least he is not going to Afghanistan, where the real trouble is, Gordy tells herself.
• • •
Howard, a nursing student, suddenly had a wedding to plan.
"I was thinking, 'Oh, my God, how are we going to afford that?' "
No one replied to her craigslist post.
Howard then contacted the Sirata Beach Resort in St. Pete Beach. It said the couple could have the ceremony on its beach and a room for their honeymoon weekend.
She also reached out to Allen Wedding Co. in St. Pete Beach, which agreed to help with the wedding planning and line up free a photographer, flowers and videographer.
Relatives offered homemade meals to cater the potluck reception. They just don't know where they are going to host the party, yet.
Gordy bought a $50 wedding dress at a neighbor's yard sale.
Lewis will wear his Army fatigues.
Gordy and his mother insisted.
Cristina Silva can be reached at (727) 893-8846 or firstname.lastname@example.org.