Erica Chen and Jeff Gibbard
September 2, 2018, in Philadelphia
Attraction and near-instant witty banter on OkCupid led Erica and Jeff to an incredible first date at El Vez.
"He was charming and funny," Erica said.
"I felt so comfortable with her," Jeff said.
So comfortable that Jeff — who grew up on Long Island and who earned a film degree from Temple and an MBA from Drexel and never left Philadelphia — told her about his year-ish old divorce. That led Erica, originally from Wilmington, to tell him of her recently broken engagement. A flurry of fabulously fun dates followed: they reveled in a shared affinity for the raw beef appetizer at Pho Xe Lua, saw an Eagles game, and explored a slew of Philadelphia parks.
A month later, in September 2014, Jeff saw a look in Erica's eyes that terrified him. "I could see that she really liked me," he said. "My post-divorce brain went into alarm mode."
"I don't see this going anywhere long-term," he told her over dinner at Vedge, "but if you're cool with something casual, we can keep seeing each other."
Erica, whose engagement had ended less than a month before her first date with Jeff, certainly wasn't yet ready for anything serious. But it hurt her that this guy — the one who showed her a list of traits he sought in a future partner that described her perfectly — said they had no real potential. Still, after consulting with a friend, she decided to keep having fun outings with Jeff until she was ready for something more substantial with someone else.
For about four months Erica, now 33 and community manager at WeWork, and Jeff, 38 and part-owner of the From the Future digital marketing agency, continued their weekly dates. Then in late December 2014, she sent Jeff a text: "Thank you for opening up my heart," it read, but she couldn't see him anymore. Erica had made a commitment to someone else.
They met the next day to return each other's odds and ends, and "my heart crumbled," Jeff said. "I realized what I had done, and what I had failed to do." He wrote her a long, painful email telling her he'd made a huge mistake. Erica said she was sorry, but he was too late.
In summer 2015, her relationship ended. Jeff asked for another chance. Erica said she needed time to heal and ghosted him. Then in September, she texted that she'd like to see him again. Jeff broke things off with someone else to do so.
Two weeks later, Jeff asked Erica to be his girlfriend. She declined. For 21 straight days in 21 different ways, he asked again, sending two dozen roses and more than a dozen memes, and making her a plaque that reads, "I'm sorry about the Vedge date." Erica almost caved watching a video of all of Jeff's closest friends, each one pleading with her to please be his girlfriend because he really loved her. But she did not.
"I had to protect my heart," Erica said. "I had to see if he was really, really willing to fight for this."
Just after Thanksgiving, Jeff joined Erica and two friends at Han Dynasty. He offered to help the single ladies write dating profiles, asking many questions at dinner, and still working on them at 1 a.m. "I told him he could wait until tomorrow to finish, but he said they could be finding their loves today," Erica remembered. After hitting "send," Jeff looked over and called her lui peng yau — "girlfriend" in Cantonese. "Lam peng yau" — "boyfriend" — she replied.
Jeff's love of helping others find love online led him to launch HitchPhilly, a business with services including dating-profile assistance and date coaching. Jeff asked Erica, whose job includes planning events for WeWork members, to host a workshop. On Aug. 30, 2017, he told the audience of about 30 of her coworkers, members, and others that he would use his own online dating story as illustration. At what seemed like the end, Jeff started a video he'd made with the help of Erica's cousin Julian Kam.
On screen, Jeff entered Erica's grandparents' home in Delaware. He leaned first toward her grandmother Cheung Pui King and asked — in Cantonese but with English subtitles — for her blessing to marry Erica. Tears flowed down Erica's face as she saw Jeff ask her grandfather Leung Kwong Yue, her parents, Brenda and Hwu Chen, and her Aunt Polly Kam.
Then, in real time, Jeff knelt and asked, "Will you spend forever with me?"
The couple were legally married at a wedding chapel in late December, taking the vows they'd written for each other privately at their Center City home. That freed them up to have a fun, second ceremony that expressed their love of love, romance, and pop culture. "We kind of made fun of ourselves with an over-the-top fairy tale," Jeff said.
Rather than wedding programs, the couple listed the day's events on a poster featuring cartoon versions of themselves and their 18-member bridal party.
After the introduction of Erica's parents and Jeff's, Terry and Maryanne Gibbard, Jeff's best man, Marco, ran up the aisle at the Courtyard Marriott, blew into a shofar, and read from a scroll: "Hear ye, hear ye, it is with great honor and reverence that we gather here today for the loving wedding nuptials of Jeffrey Allen Bartholomew Peter Parker Gibbard III and Erica Chiayii Ariel Belle Cinderella Chen."
The sound of the ram's horn summoned their officiant — a unicorn. Or, more precisely, Erica's friend and co-worker Mark Cook in an inflatable uniform costume. "Let this ring signal to all the would-be suitors out there that should they try to court Erica, Jeff will Hulk out and rip their arms off," the unicorn said.
Erica's brother Chia-ho Chen read "Belle's Vows to Rumpelstiltskin" from ABC's Once Upon a Time.
Jeff wrote the ceremony with a consultation from Erica. They loved it, but the author was nervous. "The first time everyone started laughing at the ceremony, I knew they were playing along with us, and I knew the day would be epic," he said.
A 1½-hour cocktail hour followed, then Erica and Jeff launched the reception for 165 with a dance choreographed to three songs: Taylor Swift's "Enchanted," Maroon 5's "Sugar," and Olly Murs' "Dance with Me Tonight."
Before the pre-ceremony photographs, Jeff stood, head down, eyes closed, nervously waiting to see Erica for the first time that day. "I sense her coming up behind me, and she puts her hands over my eyes," he remembered. "She said in this goofy voice right into my ear, 'Hey DAHRRling!' " It was hilarious and sweet, and it reinforced for Jeff that Erica was precisely the perfect person.
Just before first-dance time, Erica saw Jeff across the room and began walking toward him. "In the periphery, I could see our family and friends, but my main focus was on Jeffery," she said. "All of our planning, and all of the chasing, and all of the wooing had come to this. And this was the beginning of our journey."
A bargain: Wailan Quon, a friend of Erica's family, is a retired florist. With $280 from the couple, she ordered flowers from Costco and created all the bouquets and centerpieces.
The splurge: Whenever the couple walked past the windows of MySuit on Walnut, Jeff eyed one of the tuxes in the window and pledged that should they marry, that's what he would wear. His blue tux with black lapels, personalized pocket position, and wedding date stitched inside cost $1,300.
Two and a half weeks in Vietnam and Japan, where the couple vowed to eat enough noodles and other carbs to make up for their pre-wedding deprivation.
Officiant: Mark Cook, friend and coworker of the bride.
Ceremony and Reception Venue: Courtyard Marriott Philadelphia.
Cake: Classic Cake, Cherry Hill and Philadelphia.
DJ: DJ Khoa Nguyen , Eclipse Entertainers, Philadelphia.
Photography: Elizabeth Hershey, George Street Photo & Video.
First Dance Videography: Tim Eulie, Eulie Creative, Philadelphia.
Flowers: Wailan Quon
Dress: Maggie Sottero, purchased at Brides &Grooms Bridal Boutique, Newark, Del.
Hair/Makeup: Dana Persia and Elisa DiBruno, Beautiful Brides Philly.