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As an adjunct professor of creative writing, I’ve encountered no shortages of clichés—but I never thought I’d become one. Falling in love in paradise? A B-plus at best. Falling in love in the presence of seven female students and an academic colleague while leading a study abroad trip? F-minus. Circled in red marker. With a note that said do better.
I tried to convince myself I wasn’t a total trope—after all, the paradise we visited could be another person’s nightmare. The Belize jungle lurked with howler monkeys that released prehistoric roars and snake-riddled trails that could result in a swift airlift. At the Belize Foundation for Research and Environmental Education, colloquially dubbed BFREE, we had zero Wi-Fi, cell service, hot water, or traditional toilets. Plus, the rainforest didn’t accommodate for sexiness. Humidity made a sport out of unwanted hair waves, the dampness clung with musty abandon to my clothes, and the heat gifted swampy pits and a pulpy face. My pale northern skin was a buffet for mosquitos and UV rays. My diet had undergone a coup d’état, and sans dairy, my bathroom breaks tripled. A nearby location had even been used to film the popular survival show Naked and Afraid—not Bachelor in Paradise.
But in the end, I was a moony-eyed traveler with an undeniable meet cute. I first saw Barney on a tour of BFREE’s property given by its founder, Jacob. Jacob was a man in his late fifties with a spindly gait, laissez-faire attitude, and magnetic glasses that clipped at the bridge of his nose. He’d just led us past the outhouses with compositing woodchips.
“…to conclude my crappy speech,” said Jacob, “Give a shit about conservation.”
Cue the entrance of Barney, who transpired from the leafy canopy cradling a Tupperware of turtle eggs. Looking up through sweepy lashes, he explained he’d run out of proper materials and stored the reptilian babies in dirt for warmth. His creole accent was as soft and assured as prayer. My ovaries played like bongos and I filed his face away for memory—something I’d describe to my friends when I returned home. That was as far as it would go, I assumed, a blurry snapshot of a man with a dark beard tinted auburn in the sunlight. Hubba hubba, we’d joke.
I wasn’t laughing the next day, when I became familiar with Barney the human rather than Barney the snapshot. Our troupe of English majors were shadowing workers in the Hicatee program that protected endangered turtles, monitored their mating patterns, and eventually released them to the wild. Tom the Jaguar, a man with a stick and poke tattoo and tendency to flip his hair back like the lead singer of a metal band, assigned us tasks. Seven women pickaxing the garden, two women raking the pond for feces and dead leaves.
Over the rhythmic gathering of scat, Barney and I bonded. We covered all the essentials—family, future career goals, and our appetite for chicken nuggets. Meanwhile, my colleague and several students sweated and heaved for breath under the Caribbean sun.
“Don’t tell anyone I’m not working,” Barney murmured.
I didn’t have to—everyone watched us from across the pond. When we all reconvened, Barney and I were, of course, teased mercilessly. The students were boisterous and quick-witted and gorgeously self-confident. They had their own language which was twenty percent TikTok slang, fifty percent meme references, and thirty percent obscured song lyrics. Often, my coleader and I could only observe them as if mesmerized by a flock of scarlet macaws. Because I admired them, I feared becoming the Flirting Bimbo in front of them.
We left the Hicatee location and I tried to forget about Barney. He likely had rules against rendezvous with the guests. I was dedicated to making sure the students didn’t contract botfly or get up close and personal with a puma. Anything could happen while residing in the gut of the Bladen Reserve, Jacob liked to remind us. I didn’t expect the most looming threat to be a man passionate about birding and canoe rides.
I was a self-proclaimed antiromantic, a curmudgeonly twenty-something jaded by hookup culture and feminist mantras. I penned opinion pieces for my college newspaper that disparaged Ring by Spring trends. I championed female friendship across my social media and wore my singleness like a well-loved blanket. Another tired story: Woman resistant to dating takes the lovey-dovey plunge. But paradoxically, it was the story that also drew me in.
A few months before the trip, I attempted online dating. Under my cozy, protective layer of singlehood was the existential dread of dying alone in a one-bedroom house with a table for two and a chair that remained loudly empty. But the app only amplified my dread, despite the glut of men who totally loved to travel and knew the best spot in town for sushi. As a writer, I couldn’t swallow my ego—the idea of telling others I’d met a partner via a curated profile was horrifying. Not morally, but narratively. Rather than experiencing connection through an inciting incident, rising action, and climax, the connection was engineered. Hunting for hunnies on an iPhone leeched the mystery from the process.
Barney, as it turned out, loved stories too. One day we paddled a canoe upriver to a swimming hole. Everything was a smear of blue and lime like a rustic oil painting. We skipped stones and allowed fish to nibble our dead skin, the Maya mountains resting postcard-esque in the background. I tried to focus on the vines lazing over the rippling surface, but I was distracted by the beads that trickled down his spine. The hiccup of his shoulder blades with each stroke.
“There’s a myth about Catarina and Arturo,” he said, sitting on a rock that poked above the water. We were half-shaded, shivering, with droplets clinging to the leftover heat of our skin. “They were lovers who drowned.”
Tragedy punctuated all of Barney’s tales. There were the parrots, birds who mated for life, that called to each other for weeks when separated. Then there was the love vine that gripped a tree’s trunk until it suffocated. American and Belizean traditions, famous literature, the rhythms of nature—it all echoed the same theme: Everything must come to an end.
Sneaking around had its charms, since it forced Barney and I to get creative with our settings. One evening we slow-danced in the classroom surrounded by texts on Maya healing remedies and jarred specimen one might find in oddities shops. Another night we made a pitstop at an unused ranger house and gave each other backrubs on the porch, swatting gnats and listening to kinkajous leap in the fronds. Afterwards we shared a smooch on the trail, and the following morning I found myself walking the same path. This time, with our guide Kanti and several students.
Kanti was squat but dense like a bulldog. He referred to a large cat as a puss and drank religiously from his canteen. I trusted him with my life.
He stopped at the lip-lock site. “Here we have our first trail cam.”
My face radiated like a solar panel, but not from the ninety-degree weather. We trekked back to the office to scan the images for evidence of wildlife. Apparently, the camera snapped photos at any detection of motion. Would it pick up on minute jaw twitches? The subtle shift of hands? As Kanti thumbed through pusses and bush rabbits, I rehearsed justifications in my head. Yeah so, you’re about to witness never-before-seen footage of my tongue. But, uh, I’m still your teacher.
By some miracle of the cosmos, nothing was revealed. I was spared and maybe even a little giddy—admittedly, I was a curmudgeon who happened to be putty for forbidden romance. But as I would discover about most of my assumptions, the forbidden aspect only existed in my head. I still played by my own set of restrictions, navigating my interactions with Barney like we were turtles under a herpetologist’s scope.
Evenings were the most difficult to navigate. Not only physically, with a headlamp and the hope that I wouldn’t step on a snake or in the busy path of leafcutter ants. But also socially, since it meant being under the community’s gaze. Our group shared three meals a day with the workers at BFREE, and at some point Barney joined our rowdy mahogany picnic table. I used one ear for listening to the adventures of students who learned how to cook tamales from Eddie the chef, and the other ear to hear about the rare Potoo Barney spotted. A headache-inducing rift formed in my brain. On one side: professional duties. On the other: the urgency of a relationship with a deadline.
It was the urgency that spooked me most. What if my interest in Barney was propelled by the fact we only had three weeks together? That we were surrounded by pretty purple flowers dubbed yesterday, today, and tomorrows? They bloomed in clumps of three—yesterday was a pale lavender while tomorrow was a promising violet. Everything was a reminder of time and beauty and the erotic—not necessarily sensuality, but aliveness. It was easy to feel with intensity on vacation, surrounded by newness, without the familiar dulling the peripheral.
I performed a self-assessment to settle my concerns:
Question one: Had I fallen prey to Bachelor in Paradise Syndrome? Was I smitten with the magic of BFREE—a joint that ran on solar power and rangers who would defend our lives with machetes—or with Barney’s personhood? Could I picture those sweepy lashes dotted with snow, set against a Minnesotan backdrop?
Question two: Did Barney check all my boxes? Boxes typically included but were not limited to: liberal in politics and philosophies, curious with a desire to learn, spiritual without the pomp of answers, independent to the point of not needing an all-consuming partnership. My boxes didn’t have tidy cross-cultural translations. Belize wasn’t split into Republicans and Democrats. Mennonites dominated the religious landscape. Moving to a foreign country for someone would require heavy dependence.
Question three: Did I fear not having answers more than I desired not having regrets?
As an insomniac, I chewed on these questions all night. By morning I needed to purge them, so I word-vomited on my colleague, April. We were getting ready for the day, baptizing ourselves in bug spray and gulping probiotics.
“I’m trying not to be excited about him,” I told her.
“Why?” she asked, shifting to sit on our staircase that doubled as a haven for bats. April was a small, compact woman who was dauntingly articulate and knew what she wanted. She was also the ideal friend and confidant—someone whose nature left no room for pretense.
“What if it doesn’t work out?” I shrugged, shaking a boot to check for scorpions.
I’d been heartbroken before and I couldn’t decide what was more embarrassing: being in love or being out of it. April looked at me the way a ranger did when a student asked if she could scale a cotton tree or hug a jaguar. The gist of her well-crafted answer was more or less so what?
So what if the students rooted for Team Jarney and threatened to serenade us with songs from fairytales? So what if I returned to the Midwest with not only a greater cultural appreciation of Jippy Joppa and cacao beans, but also a flesh-and-blood boyfriend? So what if, in a radical twist, I actually enjoyed being a cliche? Maybe professionalism was an excuse for something I’d always lacked prowess in—public displays of emotion. The eyes around me held nothing but encouragement that I’d projected my self-judgement on. So behold, there I was: the love vine. Skilled at suffocating a thing before it had a chance.
On our final day at BFREE, we returned the way we came: a six-mile hike through the savannah caked in red mud. Only the mud had dried and the once-grassy fields had been scorched by wildfire. The oil painting turned black and white, charcoaled and crunchy. The external landscape reflected our internal ones—no one was ready to leave this strange and holy land. Minutes before, April had led us in a benediction after we carried a chosen rock across the Bladen River and built a cairn on the other side. With fingers interlocked and chins bowed down, I allowed myself a release, tasting the tears as they inched towards my lips. When I looked up, Barney waited on the opposite bank, the stream dividing us.
The night before, he’d surprised me with an elaborate, rom-com-esque scene. We’d met at the lab, which hadn’t met my sterile expectations, but was instead a wood hut cluttered by bins with masking-tape labels. He’d arranged Birds of Paradise petals in a heart, along with the random batteries on the desk. We danced to angsty songs about angels and bluesy ones about that pesky four-letter word. Every few minutes, the water tank groaned like a semi accelerating on the highway. But for a predictable plot, there was still so much unknown. I voiced my concerns.
“We’ll write our own story,” Barney promised.
It sounded like a line delivered in a novel. It sounded good. I basked in the absurdity—the heart-shaped batteries and overactive water tank—and decided it would be an honor to regret him.