An Unexpected Story of Love at First Sight

Last year, on an ordinary Tuesday morning, something magical happened…

It started with a text message. My husband, Ross, is a civil engineer. Specifically, he works on bridges, which he sometimes has to climb over, under, and even into. (Sometimes he even sees scorpions.) The work is often in rural places with poor reception, so I don’t usually hear much from Ross when he’s traveling. This was especially true last December. I had finished my Ph.D. in English six months before, but I couldn’t find a job, and we didn’t love our living situation. It was a tough time. Neither of us was reaching out much.

So, I was surprised when one evening my phone started blowing up with texts from Ross, who was on a work trip in north Texas. When I opened my messages, I found a dozen photos of a big-eared, calico kitten. By itself, this wouldn’t normally surprise me. I’ve never met anyone more obsessed with cats than my husband. But these photos seemed to be telling a more involved story. There was one of the kitten on the bridge, another of the kitten in Ross’ arms. The kitten rolling on the ground. The kitten in the work truck. I called back as quickly as I could.

“Hello?” Ross answered, sounding happier than he had in months.

“Oh, my gosh,” I said. “Tell. Me. Everything.”

It happened like this: Ross and his coworker were working on a bridge in the middle of nowhere, miles away from anything. Ross was down on the riverbank looking up at the bridge when he heard a soft squeak. Then he heard it again, a little louder — could it be? Sure enough, across the bank, there it was. A kitten, barreling towards him.

As Ross described the next few moments, I pictured time slowing to a crawl, Chariots of Fire-style: I pictured Ross, scrambling up the bank. Ross, running across the bridge, shouting “It’s a caaaaaat” at his startled coworker. Ross, throwing his engineering notes into the air as he ran (this last part may not have happened).

Once the kitten realized Ross was coming, it ran up the bank to meet him, and they fell into each other’s arms like characters at the end of a romantic comedy.

“And then what happened?” I asked, waiting for the part where Ross tells me we’re keeping it.

Ross said that the kitten stayed with them the whole day. They got him some food and, while they drove from one bridge to the next, the kitten fell asleep in the car. And at each bridge they inspected, they let the kitten out so he could follow them around while they worked.

But then Ross reminded me: he still had a full week on the road. He couldn’t possibly keep the kitten with him all that time. Instead, he and his coworker had dropped him off at an animal shelter in Paris, Texas, a tiny town 300 miles away from our home in Austin. Ross said the goodbye was horrible, but at least the shelter staff seemed excited. They didn’t have any other kittens, they told him, and they were sure they’d find him a family right away.

“That’s great,” I said, but really I was thinking back off, Paris. This kitten already has a family.

I knew what I had to do.

I eased Ross off the phone, trying not to show how nervous-excited I was. “Oh my gosh, would you look at the time? LoveyoumissyouBYE.” I found the shelter’s number and called.

And that is how I found myself in the car the next morning at 5 a.m., on a mission. Five hours, multiple podcasts, and more than one missed turn later, I burst through the shelter’s doors. “Hi-hello-I-left-a-bunch-of-messages; I-think-you-have-my-kitten?” We walked past a seemingly endless line of barking dogs and into the cat room.

Then, just like that: 3.1 pounds of hope was purring against my chest.

After we visited the vet, Unnamed Baby Boy Kitten and I headed home. And every night when we talked on the phone, Ross reminisced about the kitten. I was so afraid of giving the secret away, I made faces in the mirror to distract myself.

Miraculously, I didn’t let the cat out of the bag. On the contrary: one week later, when I finally heard Ross’s keys in the door, I plopped the kitten into a box that I had wrapped. Ross opened the box, and when the kitten hopped out it was love at second sight. They’ve been inseparable ever since.

We named the kitten Grendel, after the lonely monster who haunts the forest in Beowulf, an Old English poem I used to love teaching. Sometimes we wonder how he came to be under a bridge in the forest. The most plausible story — that he was abandoned — is too sad to dwell on, so we like to say he was raised by a family of squirrels.

After six more months of false starts and disappointments, I finally found a job that allowed us to move back to D.C., a city we both love. Things eventually got better, as things always eventually do.

Grendel is one now, and still at least once a week Ross will talk about how he found him in the forest, and I’ll talk about how I drove 600 miles to bring him the rest of the way home. More than that, though, our sweet, dopey, grown-up kitten — plucked from a riverbank just because Ross was in that particular place at that particular time — reminds me that beautiful and surprising things can happen even when you feel lost in the woods. Maybe especially then. That’s how most fairytales start, after all.

And we all lived happily ever after.

The kitten on the bridge.

The kitten in Ross’s work truck.

The kitten driving home with Haylie.

Happy at home!

Do you have any pets? How did you come together?

P.S. An open letter to dogs, and 12 reader comments on love.

(Illustration by Alessandra Olanow for Cup of Jo.)