Kayla Johnson didn’t have a script in mind when she approached the crowded booth of men at the Plaza Tavern, a Wisconsin bar, in April 2013.
“Hey, guys, sorry to interrupt,”she ad-libbed. “We were just sitting here and my roommate lost her wallet. Any chance you’ve seen it?”
The men scanned the space thoughtfully, checking every crack and crevice to see where it may have fallen. No luck.
The truth was there wasn’t any wallet. The line was a ploy, made up on the spot by Kayla to spark conversation with the cute guys and, hopefully, score a round of free drinks for her and her girlfriends. “It worked like a charm,” she says.
What Kayla didn’t realize was that James Castañeda, her “college crush” for four years at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, was in the group.
Although she had talked to James only once, fleetingly, at a concert her freshman year, she had always admired him from a distance and texted friends when she spotted him on campus.
Seizing the moment, Kayla decided to reintroduce herself and take a seat. Suddenly, she got butterflies and her heart began to race. She tried to push past it.
“I did not play it cool,” she admits. “At all.”
Fortunately, she didn’t have to. James was smitten with her bubbly, outgoing personality. “She was very present in the conversation and asked all the right questions,” he recalls. “I didn’t want to stop talking to her.”
The conversation flowed easily, and they exchanged numbers at the end of the night. Heeding the advice of friends, James tried to wait a full day before asking her out, but he couldn’t.
“He’s incredibly enthusiastic,” says Kayla. “In his early texting, he would write me things with, like, seven exclamation points.”
Days later, he invited her to a concert. But, perhaps distracted by excitement, he failed to mention that his sister would also be there.
“I didn’t give Kayla any warning,” James says. “Or think to tell my sister, ‘Hey, I’m going to be on a date, so actually it would be cool if you didn’t come.’ ”
Despite the oversight, the date was a success, and they shared their first kiss. Soon they were spending much of their free time together, having picnics at the park and going to concerts around town.
“We saw each other constantly,” Kayla says. “I couldn’t get enough of his energy and wanted to see him again and again.”
“I was actively trying to talk myself down from being totally in love with her right away,” James adds.
Three weeks in, at the height of their puppy-love stage, they went on a weekend camping trip at Governor Dodge State Park in Dodgeville, Wis. The trip was far from perfect.
“We had such tunnel vision of each other that we didn’t think to pack a proper sleeping bag, cooking utensils or even a flashlight. We had one blanket between us [and] it was freezing cold and pouring rain,” says Kayla. “It was terrible, but we had so much fun.”
Things continued to progress steadily and easily, and by early July they were official. A few weeks later, Kayla, now 25, moved to Washington to work for Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) as a legislative correspondent. After several months of long distance, James, now 27, followed and began working as a music teacher at Goding Elementary School in Northeast Washington.
Life, however, threw them a curveball in May 2015 when Kayla’s father was diagnosed with cancer.
“It went from knowing James and I could have fun together to me needing [him] in a way that I’ve never needed anyone before. I take pride in the fact that I can take care of myself, so for me to turn to him and say ‘I can’t do this’ was challenging,” says Kayla. “There’s beauty in having a partner who’ll say, ‘Here, I got this. It’s okay to not be okay.’ ”
With James’s full support, Kayla moved back to Minneapolis for a month to be closer to family. “It cemented the fact that [he] was not only my boyfriend, he was my partner,” she says.
When Kayla returned to D.C., they moved into an apartment on Capitol Hill. There, they began building a life together. James attributes Kayla’s career ambition and drive for inspiring him to pursue his dream of starting a schoolwide orchestra program, while Kayla credits James for keeping her sane, day in and day out, by showing her the importance of valuing relaxation, embracing her goofy side and living in the moment.
“When I go to grab my morning cup of coffee, he makes me dance with him and give him a kiss before I can take it,” says Kayla. “He brings joy to every part of my life.”
Over Memorial Day weekend in 2016, James invited Kayla on a sunset walk along the beach at Chincoteague Island, Va. With the help of friends, he surprised her with a romantic display in the sand — a heart made out of shells and candles — and proposed. Since Kayla loves dogs, he gave her a plastic pug ring as a placeholder, which was later replaced with a green jade and white sapphire ring.
Their friends, hidden behind some sand dunes, cheered excitedly and presented them with champagne, sparklers and a plastic “Frozen”-themed tiara for the bride-to-be.
Weeks before the wedding, they moved to Minneapolis to be closer to family, and Kayla accepted a position as the Minnesota Democratic Party’s communications director.
On July 1, the couple exchanged vows at Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Minneapolis. The bride, and the father of the bride, fought back tears as she made her way toward her groom.
“Seeing the faces of all my loved ones — friends, family from every era of my life — was incredible,” Kayla says, “like watching a movie of my life, all the characters from every scene.”
Right after the newlyweds shared their first kiss, a friend pulled a trumpet from the choir loft and began playing Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros’ hit “Home.” Twelve guests followed suit, playing a variety of instruments, and led the crowd in a parade down Main Street to the reception venue.
“We danced the entire way,” says Kayla. “It was sensational.”
Instead of a first dance, the musical pair surprised their 270 guests with a duet, singing Randy Newman’s “You’ve Got a Friend in Me.”
“You’ve got troubles, and I’ve got ’em, too
There isn’t anything I wouldn’t do for you
We stick together and can see it through
’Cause you’ve got a friend in me.”
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