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A Two-Week Trip That Took Them Out of the Friend Zone

Jennifer Noinaj didn’t think she would ever get married, but after a year with Andrew Perry Chu, who goes by his middle name, she changed her mind.

“You know that feeling, you trust yourself?” she said. “I’d never felt that trust in anyone else except him. And it was at that point — that I fully trusted Perry as much as I trust myself — I told him, ‘I’m ready to get married whenever you want to.’”

There was just one hitch in her plan to get hitched.

“‘I’m not ready,’” she recalled him saying.

The two, now both 34, initially met at the party of a mutual friend in 2007. Both had grown up in the Chicago area — she in the city and he in Buffalo Grove, a suburb — and some of his high school friends had become her friends at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, from which she graduated. Mr. Chu graduated from Carnegie Mellon University.

Their group, which includes about 20 people, has remained close over the years, and when the pandemic happened, they moved their hangouts to the internet. Both Ms. Noinaj and Mr. Chu particularly enjoyed board games, and they got to know each other through their fierce online competition.

“He had never really opened up to me, but there is this forcing function when you’re online, to a certain extent,” Ms. Noinaj said. “Because you’re not in person, you end up having to talk a little bit more. And I felt like I really got to see his personality.”

She developed a crush, which she confided to a friend.

“I said, ‘I’ve been talking to him a lot and we’ve been playing all these games. And he keeps beating me! And it is exciting for me.”

Not long after, he was laid off when the San Francisco start-up company he worked at began to falter. He is now a data scientist, working from their home in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, for the General Services Administration.

She learned about his situation through their online connection, and at just about the same time, in the summer of 2020, she took some time off work.

“I can be a bit of a workaholic,” said Ms. Noinaj, who is now a design strategist, working remotely to improve end-user experiences, also at the G.S.A. “I recognized that I needed to leave to reset.”

So she contacted Mr. Chu and asked if he’d like to go on a trip. (Over the years, they had been on several trips with their friend group.) Both were enthusiastic about touring Alaska in a camper van. The possibility of a romance between them was not a subject they broached.

A few weeks later, in August, they met in Anchorage. It didn’t take long for sparks to fly.

[Click here to binge read this week’s featured couples.]

“We got fish and chips for dinner, and there’s a spot in Anchorage called the mud flats, where we watched the sunset at like 11 p.m.,” Ms. Noinaj said. “I remember thinking this would be a really romantic moment if we weren’t just friends.”

The next morning, as the two were about to embark on a two-week adventure in close quarters, Mr. Chu made his move.

“Perry asked me, would you like to go on a date with me?” she said. “I was being coy, and he was like, ‘This is just the start of our trip. We have time to figure it out.’ And then he came in for a kiss.”

By October, he had decided to leave San Francisco to be with Ms. Noinaj in Chicago.

“I was like, ‘You know, Jenn, I’m going to come to you,’” he recalled. “‘I just want to see where this goes.’”

Six months after Mr. Chu moved to Chicago, they moved again, to Manhattan, so that Ms. Noinaj could complete a master’s degree in strategic design and management at the New School’s Parsons School of Design. Mr. Chu is now studying online for a master’s degree in computer science at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

This July, as the two were heading to the Adirondacks for the holiday weekend, Mr. Chu turned to Ms. Noinaj.

“‘Hey, Jenn,’” he said. “‘I’m ready to get married now.’”

On Aug. 22, the couple went to Brooklyn Borough Hall with a friend, Crystal Ye, as their witness. Waldo Ramirez, a member of the New York City Clerk’s staff, officiated.

Afterward, they had a party with 16 friends at Rule of Thirds, a Japanese restaurant in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.

Mr. Chu said that the realization dawned on him slowly that there was a next step he wanted to take.

“We sort of knew where things were going,” he said. “But having more time actually living together and thinking about a future together, I was just like, ‘This really is what I want.’”

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