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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, February 26, 2006

'Test of distance' keeps revisiting couple

By Catherine E. Toth
Advertiser Staff Writer

Nakeli Santiago and Timothy Hendrix met online five years ago. They wed last year but are back to e-mails since his Navy transfer.

Richie Varela

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Five years ago, Timothy Hendrix was moving from Arkansas to Hawai'i as a musician in the Navy.

Not knowing anyone in the Islands, he searched AOL members online and found O'ahu resident Nakeli Santiago.

Then he sent her a quick e-mail.

The only thing they had in common: They both had worked at The Gap.

The two started chatting online and instant-messaging each other for nearly two years, talking about everything from music to movies.

In 2003 Hendrix went offline and Santiago missed him.

"He was so interesting," said Santiago, 21, a student at the University of Hawai'i-Manoa majoring in travel industry management. "I realized I actually missed talking to him."

In April, while Santiago was vacationing in Santa Barbara, she noticed Hendrix was back online. She quickly e-mailed him and suggested meeting up when she returned to the Islands.

They swapped pics that piqued Santiago's interest and set a date.

On the day of their date in May, Hendrix almost backed out. And Santiago was so worried about meeting a stranger she had met on the Internet, she forced her sister and her then-boyfriend to tag along.

"I was so nervous to meet him," Santiago said. "It was really out of character for me to do this."

But once they saw each other, all their fears and worries disappeared.

They watched a movie at Dole Cannery and took in a Hawaiian concert at UH. At the end of the night, Hendrix took Santiago back to the band room at Pearl Harbor and played the French horn for her.

"I was very smitten," Santiago said, smiling.

They exchanged numbers. Hendrix told her, "May as well keep a good thing going."

They dated for about a week before making their relationship exclusive. They watched movies, talked over dinners, and dined on takeout at his apartment in Pearl City.

"I just felt so comfortable with him," said Santiago, who was impressed that Hendrix would open doors for her. "We had so much in common and we had the same views on life. He felt comfortable, like an old sweater."

At Christmas, she flew to Arkansas with him to meet his family. Though they were getting serious, they weren't talking about marriage just yet.

That didn't happen until the following summer, in 2004. Santiago was doing an internship on Maui for three months and the distance, she said, had strengthened their relationship.

"Being apart and only relying on conversation, that's when I knew this was something solid," Santiago said. "This could stand the test of distance."

But what sealed the deal for her was when, that summer, Hendrix offered to baby-sit Santiago's 1-year-old brother, giving her mom and her mom's fiance a chance to go out.

"I was so touched he would do that," Santiago said. "That was just really sweet. I knew what kind of person he was and what kind of husband he would be."

By August 2004 they were looking at rings. But Hendrix told Santiago he would have to save up money before popping the question. She understood and put thoughts of marriage on the back burner.

Little did she know that he was planning to propose a lot sooner than she anticipated.

Six months later, on Jan. 27, 2005, Santiago thought they were heading to Wal-Mart. Hendrix suggested they watch the sunset at Ko Olina Resort & Marina. He led her to a secluded cove on the hotel grounds.

Nervous, he just sat there for a while.

"I was annoyed at this point, so I stood up," Santiago said. "Then he got down on his knee."

Hendrix would need to request an extension with the Navy to stay in Hawai'i while Santiago finished her degree. He was told that getting married would strengthen his case to stay. So the couple quickly wed in an official ceremony on June 9, 2005, at Ko Olina, where he had proposed. Just her father and grandmother came as witnesses.

They planned a second ceremony on Nov. 20, 2005, at the Radisson Hotel Waikiki. About 140 guests attended the reception, which featured a bevy of Tahitian dancers. (Santiago is part-Tahitian.)

Just before their second wedding, they found that Hendrix's request for an extension was denied. Though they didn't want to separate, they weren't sure if they could survive in Hawai'i on one salary while Santiago was still in school. So Hendrix decided to move back to Arkansas and finish his degree in music education and art. Santiago will join him once she graduated in May.

He left in December. Santiago moved back home in Salt Lake.

"It's been so hard; but I think the distance is strengthening our relationship," said Santiago, who's already looking for jobs in Arkansas. "We're learning to be more understanding and patient with each other. ... But I miss just waking up and falling asleep with him. I miss having that comfort."

They love being married, despite the distance.

"Nakeli and I are both mature at our ages and understand what it takes to make marriage work," said Hendrix, 24, who's enrolled at Arkansas State University. "It's not always easy, but it's worth every ounce of sweat and tears."

They talk on the phone a few times a day. And they're back to e-mailing and IM-ing.

"I guess you could say it's come full circle," Santiago said.

Reach Catherine E. Toth at ctoth@honoluluadvertiser.com.