A week after communicating through a dating app’s chat room, Briana and Frank met in person at an upscale Italian restaurant in Ambler.
That August night in 2018, he spoke about his Fox Chase upbringing and the career he loves, teaching English and personal finance to juniors and sophomores at Tacony Academy Charter School. She was born in Reading but spent her childhood traveling wherever the Army sent her father, then, as an adult, went wherever the Army needed her and her skills as a medic, she told him.
Both love music so much they enjoy talking about it nearly as much as listening to it — she favors ’90s hip-hop, emo bands, and country. He’s into alternative rock, blues, and soul.
The boutique Italian portions were kind of tiny. “Are you still hungry?” Frank asked after the plates were cleared. Briana was, and they both wanted to keep talking, so it was off to a local brewery for beer and fries, where they stayed until the go-home lights came on.
“I enjoyed my time with her,” said Frank, who is now 34. “I felt like I could be myself around her.”
“He’s open-minded, but from a classic mold,” said Briana, who is now 30. She found it so brave that he chose a place with ambience for their first date. “There is something very old-school about him.”
Frank definitely wanted to see her again, he said, but it would be a while; he and his family were about to leave for two weeks in Sea Isle. Two days into that two weeks, he couldn’t wait and drove back across the bridge to see Briana again.
The two had plans to spend Labor Day weekend at the Shore with her family, but when the weather forecast turned rainy two hours before departure, she suggested an all-weather alternative: a trip to New York City.
They waited in line to eat Morimoto’s ramen for lunch — a first for Frank. A Google search of weekend events led Briana to a harbor booze cruise with a Beatles cover band. When she told Frank she had tickets, his heart fluttered. “I’m a huge Beatles fan,” he said. “She’s pretty meh about them, but she went out of her way to do this beer boat thing for me, which showed me that she cared.”
Briana liked seeing him happy — and seeing the Statue of Liberty by boat was pretty great, too. But soon they realized what was supposed to be a two-hour cruise had stretched to three. Then, the last train back to their New Jersey hotel was canceled.
Frank calmly got out his phone and went to work. “He figured it out,” Briana said. “He guided us to another train, and then to a cab, and we got back to our hotel.”
Frank’s actions made Briana feel cared for and safe — feelings that have often eluded her. During her time in the military, particularly during her year of wartime service in Iraq, she always had to be running full-tilt, making life-or-death decisions on the fly. When she became unable to run or lift, Briana medically retired as a sergeant in 2013 after five years of service. She continues to have pain from ongoing problems with her back, legs, and feet. She also has depression and PTSD. Her struggle to find the right doctors and right treatment continues.
A mental health advocate, Briana told Frank about her physical and mental health diagnoses. “He was one of the first guys who understood,” she said. “I’ve dated a veteran. I’ve dated a cop. The teacher was more understanding.”
She’s good at understanding him, too, Frank said. On the chalkboard in the Blue Bell apartment they have shared since June 2019, and Post-its slipped into his lunch box, Briana writes notes of love and affirmation. “It shows how much she loves me,” he said.
When your man is an English teacher, “you need to spell it out in words,” Briana said.
The couple enjoy watching Philadelphia sports teams and German soccer, eating foods of many cultures, and attending the shows of many, many bands. Briana frequently participates in Wounded Warrior Project events, and sometimes Frank is the only civilian. Such was the case in January of this year when they joined other veterans for a Photography Is Medicine class.
The group walked around Old City, with participants snapping shots along the way. Frank told Briana he wanted a picture of the two of them and brought the instructor over to take the shot. Suddenly, everyone’s lenses were on Briana. Before she could wonder why, Frank handed her their special packet of hot sauce — they found it at Taco Bell right after he moved in and have been randomly hiding it around their home for the other to find ever since. It said, “Marry me.”
“What are you doing, Goober?” Briana said, laughing. “We’re trying to get a picture here.”
“Gotcha!” he told the woman who swore he’d never be able to surprise her. Then he asked, “Will you marry me?”
The couple hopes to marry at Normandy Farms in Blue Bell on Valentine’s Day. They know COVID-19 could change that plan but are not too focused on something so far out that they can’t control, Frank said.
When the virus first reached Southeastern Pennsylvania, and so little was known about it, Briana felt her adrenaline levels rising to an uncomfortable level. “When it comes to disaster, I have a switch. I thrive in disaster,” she said. “That’s what I’m trained for.”
Frank helped her put the threat the virus posed into perspective, she said. “I had someone who came in and helped me scale that down to where it wasn’t so much the world is ending, just that we needed to be prepared,” she said.
Briana is a woman who can prepare, said Frank, and she made sure they had everything they needed to stay in and stay safe.
COVID-19 brought Frank some stress, too: He had to learn quickly to teach his students, all at their homes, from the couple’s apartment. He had to find the right way to reach each one, regardless of their learning style, and keep them on task. At first, not every student had computer access at home.
Briana gladly took on the colleague role — he talked his ideas through with her first. She gained a new appreciation for just how hard teaching is and just how good at it Frank is — a fact she reminded him of frequently. “He is very patient, very understanding with his students,” she said.