Exchange (A Coral Study)

by Katherine Quevedo

This story originally appeared in Factor Four Magazine


When I got to Mario Reyes’s dorm room, I heard him scuffling around, opening and closing drawers as if he had a girl coming over. I smirked as I knocked. If he’d seen my room, he wouldn’t have bothered cleaning. 

He opened the door. “Hello, Leland,” he said. “Please come in.” He never spoke in class, but his English was pretty good for an exchange student. His skin was caramel-colored even in the fluorescent light, and his thick, dark hair hung in waves past his ears. 

“You can just call me Lee.” I followed him in. “So where are you from, again?” 

“Ecuador.” 

“Oh. Quito?” 

He shook his head, looking half amused, half irritated, as if I’d conjured a weary inside joke. Probably everyone around here guessed he was from Quito. “I am from Puerto Ayora, in the Galapagos Islands.” 

“Oh, yeah. Darwin, right?” 

“Yes.” 

I flung my backpack onto his bed and stepped back as it bobbed on the mattress. A waterbed. 

Then I noticed the teal plastic seaweed scattered among his bookshelves like houseplants. He’d forgotten to shut one drawer, which held a small plastic castle designed to look carved out of coral. The color had smudged and worn off the edges, as though handled often. No wonder he was such a loner. 

“Um, seaweed?” I said. “I take it you’re majoring in marine biology. It’s like an aquarium in here.” 

“No, no, a terrarium,” he said quickly. The word sounded poetic in his accent—short vowels, rolled and flipped R’s. “An aquarium would have water. There is no water in here.” 

“Except in your mattress.” I nodded at the waterbed. “Does the school know about that?” Waterbeds weren’t exactly standard in the dorms. 

“Of course,” he said. I raised an eyebrow at him. He nervously brushed his hair back on one side, where I glimpsed a pearl earring nestled in the helix of his ear before a dark wave fell forward again and hid it. “Actually, I am a music major.” 

“Music?” I plopped myself on the sand-colored rug. “Why are you taking upper level bio?” 

“Personal interest.” 

I laughed. 

He didn’t. “May I play some music while we work?” 

“Be my guest,” I said, grabbing my backpack and fishing through it. I glanced up and caught him furrowing his brow in confusion at the phrase. He must’ve thought I’d extended him some sort of invitation. “I mean, music sounds good,” I said. “It’ll help us power through this paper so we can start thinking about winter break.” 

He smiled, started up a playlist, and joined me cross-legged on the rug, carefully avoiding his waterbed as though not to draw any more attention to it. 

His taste in music ranged from instrumental pieces that made me feel like I was at a Renaissance faire, to the latest pop hits with hypnotic beats and simple lyrics. All melodic, though. I’d expect nothing less from a music major. Then something else caught my attention, something I didn’t expect from his major: his impressive knowledge of amphibians. 

He dictated whole sections of our report off the top of his head, while my fingers flew over the keyboard to keep up. The few times he consulted our textbook, it seemed like an afterthought, a courtesy for me. And beyond his raw knowledge, his phrasing sounded poetic, like his accent. Philosophical, even. Maybe he’d call it musicality. Not sure what our professor was going think, but I didn’t care. I liked it, so I included it. 

Eventually curiosity got the better of me. I paused the music, and he jerked at the sudden silence. 

“Mario, sorry, I just have to ask. What’s with all this—terrarium stuff? How do you know so much about amphibians? You have gills or something?” 

I didn’t realize I’d meant it seriously until I saw his earnest, trusting eyes. Perhaps he wasn’t a loner by choice. He raised his hand and swept back his hair. This time, not distracted by the pearl earring, I glimpsed a shadow just beyond his earlobe. A trick of the light? Then his hair fell forward again. 

We stared at each other for a few seconds, then his eyes widened and he lurched toward the remaining open drawer and slammed it shut. He sank back onto the rug. 

I cleared my throat. “The Galapagos Islands are pretty far,” I said. “You must get homesick.” 

His eyes grew misty. “Yes. But after graduation, when I return home, I will bring your music with me.” 

We sat in silence for a moment. 

“You know,” I said, “if you need somewhere to stay during the holidays—we have a guest room. And a pool.” 

With focused eyes and a tight mouth, he studied my voice as I spoke. Nothing more than the movement of air across vocal cords, the proper positioning of tongue and jaw, and millennia of natural selection at work. But so much revealed in it. Mario searched my face as though expecting I’d referenced an inside joke he wasn’t part of. I hadn’t. 

Finally, he beamed at my offer. Music to his ears.


© Copyright Katherine Quevedo

Katherine Quevedo was born and raised just outside of Portland, Oregon, where she works as an analyst and lives with her husband and two sons. Her fiction has appeared in Best Indie Speculative Fiction Vol. III, GigaNotoSaurus, Short Édition’s Short Circuit, Apparition Literary Magazine, and elsewhere. When she isn’t writing, she enjoys watching movies, singing, playing old-school video games, belly dancing, and making spreadsheets. Find her at www.katherinequevedo.com.


Read the Rest of the November Issue

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this:
search previous next tag category expand menu location phone mail time cart zoom edit close