Norman Harris and Alicia Henry say they’re normally not the kind of people who would ever let a friend set them up on a date, and normally, they don’t move very fast in relationships.
But little has been normal for them — or any of us — since start of the COVID-19 pandemic. That strangeness, they say, has been a blessing, the jolt that shook both of them from a romantic rut and put them on a path to be married Sunday, on Valentine’s Day, a little more than six months after first meeting in person.
“I credit COVID,” Harris said.
A lot happened between the start of their relationship and that first meeting, though, including a scary bout with the disease.
At the start of 2020, Harris, a 43-year-old lawyer, had been working nonstop to grow his legal practice while serving on executive boards for the Hillsborough NAACP, Tampa Hillsborough Action Plan and Arts Conservatory for Teens, among others, and working on multiple political campaigns following his own run for office in 2018.
He was never home, and figured he’d meet someone when he was out doing his thing, or he wouldn’t meet anyone. As long as he kept up the pace, it kept him distracted from looking inward.
Henry, a 37-year-old model and makeup artist with her own hair and makeup studio in Tampa, had also poured herself into her business. And she was only a few months out of a 10-year, off-and-on relationship that she called “kind of toxic.” She was taking time to focus on work, and her two kids, with no time to meet a “nice guy.”
For a while, a mutual friend kept trying to introduce them, inviting them to the same events, but they’d both avoided the matchmaking.
Then the pandemic hit. Harris’ life halted. No court. No meetings. Just his thoughts, for the first time in a while.
“I finally slowed down,” he said, “I reflected. I reset. I reevaluated.” A friend encouraged him to think about what he wanted, which, it turned out, was to get married. That friend also encouraged him to write out a list of traits he wanted in a wife. He did.
When he finally got around to looking up that woman his friend wanted him to meet on Instagram, he was attracted, and introduced himself through direct message.
After a few weeks of messages came their first phone call. They talked for nearly two hours.
“Only way I can describe it is magical,” Harris said.
She liked that he was a go-getter, an entrepreneur like her. He liked that she was progressive, but, like him, seemed to balance that with respect and humility, “the things it takes to make a relationship work,” he said.
They discussed their thoughts on marriage and kids, and on that first phone call, he read her the list of 10 qualities he wanted in a wife — ambitious, a believer in God, a certain kind of curvy figure, and so on — saying she seemed to have all of them.
“I know how that sounds. I would never do that on a first phone call,” Harris said. “But doing things the way I’d always done them was not working for me.”
Henry agreed, though she was maybe less smitten at first. “Normally, that would freak me out. Too much too soon,” she said. “But it was okay.”
They kept talking for a few weeks, cutting through the normal superficialities. Because they could not meet in person due to the pandemic, “we were put in a position to have meaningful conversations,” Harris said. “Normally, that’s delayed when you’re focused on going out and doing fun activities.”
Then Henry got sick with COVID-19.
She was terrified, in part because of some previous health issues. She started getting horrible body aches. She recorded a video, saying goodbye to her children, just in case the worst happened.
Harris and Henry had still never met face to face. At that point, a lot of people might have taken a step back. Harris decided to do the opposite.
“He sent me vitamins. He sent me Instacart with groceries. He sent me flowers all the time,” she said. He kept checking on her, and sending positive messages of encouragement, which she believes helped her recover. “I was really taken aback. This guy has never met me, and he’s doing things some of my family and friends didn’t even do.”
“I just thought, even if this doesn’t work out, you can never go wrong with establishing strong friendships,” he said.
But the scary experience changed everything, Henry said. “It made me realize life is short, and I’m not getting younger. If something works, go with it. Don’t wait. If it wasn’t for COVID, I don’t know if I’d be getting married.”
After Henry recovered, and tested negative twice, they finally agreed to meet in July. Henry needed to pick up a birthday gift for her son from a store in Orlando, and Harris would drive her there and then get a meal. They were both a little worried. What if the chemistry wasn’t there in person after all that?
The day of the date, Henry came outside to find Harris talking to her parents. He’d accidentally met them before he even met her. “A big part of how I felt when I met him was seeing how he was with them,” she said. “He’s such a gentleman. They don’t make them like him anymore.”
The chemistry was there. She helped Harris pick out some new clothes. “We were shopping like we were a married couple.”
They’re not exactly alike. She’s originally from New York. He’s from Georgia. “I’m always walking fast, and he’s always taking his time. I’ve traveled to a lot of different countries, and he’s like, ‘Yeah, I’ve been to Texas.’ He’s more spiritual, and I’m not. But it works for us, because we’re open to exploring and trying new things with each other.”
Days later, he asked her to be his “official girlfriend.” By the end of that month he thought, “I can play it by the book and just delay the inevitable, or follow my heart.”
He casually asked her how soon would be too soon to propose, and what would be too long. She said sometime between the following day and six months would be good, not taking him seriously.
Soon after, they went to the beach to celebrate her birthday. She tried to open the blinds in their hotel room to look out at the water, and he told her to shut them.
“He was like close the blinds, I like it dark,” she said. “I was so confused. We came here for the water. Why are you being weird?”
He didn’t want her to see the beach. When they left the room, he blindfolded her. A friend took her hand and guided her to the beach. When she opened her eyes, there were rose petals all over the sand, and friends and family standing there.
A sign read, Will you marry me?
“Obviously,” Henry said, “I said yes.”
Everything else had been so unconventional, Harris had thought. Why not compress the dating time before engagement?
“I’m a lawyer. I have a tendency to overthink,” he said, “but this time I said, ‘No, I’m not going to resist this. I’m going to go with it.’ The whole thing with COVID opened me to getting outside my comfort zone.”
Last year, they started looking for venues, thinking they’d get married this summer. There was one last surprise. They found a private, outdoor spot that they liked, but it was booked up for a year except for one, much-sooner date vacated by a cancellation: Valentine’s Day.
They know it’s not ideal timing. Public health experts still recommend against gatherings with people you don’t live with.
“We talked about postponing,” Henry said. “But we’re not super young. Who knows what could happen? ... We understand if people can’t make it.
“We decided, we’re going for it.”