‘He brings joy to ev­ery part of my life’

The Washington Post Sunday - - ON LOVE - KAYLA JOHN­SON & JAMES CASTAÑEDA BY MEGAN MCDONOUGH megan.mcdonough@wash­post.com

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 (DMinn.) 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 the District, 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.”

“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.” — Kayla John­son


Kayla John­son, 25, and James Castañeda, 27, were mar­ried July 1 in Minneapolis.

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