Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The Graduate (Short Story)

The Graduate

Elsewhere in the world, December was a cold month. But here in Sulu, as the usual case in most of the tropical regions, the weather was just erratic—now sunny, next rainy—and it was hot today, scorching even.

The acacia and mango trees dotting the MSU campus were no match to the angry sun; their shades were no protection against the roasting tropical weather, only against the skin cancer that direct sunlight could give. Students and professors alike—unless one had fever—had sweats running all over their faces. The damp blotches on their clothes betrayed the sweats all over their bodies—especially in the armpits, more so, of those who forgot to use deodorant or “tawas.”

Inside the Dean’s Office of the College of Arts and Sciences, a different heat was stemming that made one wonder whether the sun could affect emotions as well.

“You did it again, young man!” roared the rotund Dean Barak Abdulyakin, standing akimbo, at the lean student sitting on a chair in front of the dean’s desk. “If you continue terrorizing your fellow students, I’ll be compelled to expel you from this college, your imminent graduation day this April notwithstanding!”

“I’ll sue you for libel, sir, because,” said Hassan, the object of the Dean’s anger, “as far as I’m concerned, I’m not a member of any terrorist group, local or otherwise—which you can double check on the FBI. So, how can I terrorize, sir?”

“Are you trying to make me laugh?”

“Perhaps, sir. But I need your answer just the same.”

“Isn’t it enough to tell you that Mr. Aminkadra—yes, that bright student that CAS is proud of—had just filed a dropping form because he could not stomach your own brand of terrorism inside the campus?” asked the dean forcing his eyes wider beneath the thick eyeglasses that reminded Hassan of the near-extinct tarsier’s eyes.

“It’s his decision, sir,” was the cool reply, his eyes unwavering on the peculiar eyes of the dean. “If he should drop out, I think, I’m not responsible with it.”
“It’s in the eyes, Mr. Sabturani—”

“Of course, the eyes….”



“Anyway, they were all there—anger, fear, resolution—when he told me yesterday of your unfair demand of him to do your thesis—and with threats of violence, of course!”

“I just want to graduate, sir, that’s all.”

“You can do that without disturbing other students’ studies, young man. Try doing your work, yourself. Don’t burden other people with yours. They have plenty of them, themselves.”

“Yes, sir! So, can I go now?”

“You may go, yes, but don’t forget everything that I’ve told you. And wait, please do apologize to Mr. Aminkadra. It’s a big loss for us losing a talented person like him. Persuade him to change his mind.”
“Yes, sir! Thank you!”

Hassan slipped out of the Dean’s Office unsure of what to do. The words of Dean Abdulyakin reverberated in his head now as he sat down on the improvised bench (which was actually one side of the enclosures of the CAS gardens) on the left side of the CAS building’s porch. The dean’s words deeply affected him, adding more pain to his already painful life. Why should the Dean expel him just to save someone else’s ass? He wondered what the Dean would do if he was in Hassan’s shoes—if he grew up with a mother who kept secret the identity of her husband to the grave.

Hassan’s Ina’ Sulma (Sabturani) died when he was first year high school without telling him who his father was. She only told him that his father died when he was yet unborn. But the rumor that his mother was single and had never been pregnant confused him the more. Sometimes, Hassan felt he was another Nabi I-sa. When he prayed once in a while, he had asked Allah, “Are you my father?”

His wealthy Apa’ Ammak (Pantarasa)—who took care of him after Sulma died—complicated the enigma one step further by saying, “Only your mother knew about your father, ask her in her grave!” His Aunt Aisha—who was an expert in ignoring Hassan—was of no help, either.

Yet, he didn’t complain. Apa’ Ammak gave him everything that he should have given for his inexistent children because his wife, Aisha Sabturani-Pantarasa, was barren. But despite the material things Apa’ Ammak provided him, Hassan was still unsatisfied. He wanted to know of his father, if just to settle the taunting he endured since childhood: “Bastard! That’s what you are! Bastard!”

Or maybe, just to prove that he was normal after all.

Then in his confusion, he befriended the wrong people. Maybe because of his frustration, or of the constant cajoling of his friends, he got hooked on drugs and boozes. His interest in studies went gradually downhill. Yet, because of superior intellect or just plain foolhardy, he managed to pass all subjects time and again because of his “terrorizing” a bunch of brainy classmates by forcing them to do his school work. If they refused, they should better know how to dodge fist blows to their faces and bodies. And Hassan was notorious to inflict more damage than that.
Those were the ways of Hassan: While his classmates were doing his homework, take-home exams, research work, and even studying for his major exams, Hassan was inside the dimly-lit room, enjoying drugs and boozes with his demented friends.

He got caught “terrorizing” many times before, but he always managed to negotiate his escape—sometimes an escape to another school. But now, as his graduation was approaching, he did not want to get caught again. Apa’ Ammak told him, “If you can’t bring a diploma to me this April, don’t ever step through my door ever again! And forget about the inheritance, I’ll forward it all to charity.”

It was a hollow threat, of course, as he could live without Apa’ Ammak, but he considered that he could not afford to live a luxurious life without him—and without the inheritance, of course. But then, he couldn’t do his scheme now without alerting Dean Abdulyakin. His classmates had already learned. Any of them would surely report to the Dean immediately, happy to get even with Hassan.

In the middle of Hassan’s contemplation, a skinny fellow, who was walking down the road in front of the CAS building, caught his attention. He realized that the fellow could be the answer to his problems. His name was Kasim, who was a new transferee to the campus. Kasim’s talents impressed Hassan. If there was someone who could do Hassan’s thesis, it should be Kasim. He had a frail body, a powerful brain, and a timid personality. Hassan thought that he could easily manipulate this man.

He bolted up and blocked Kasim on his way.

“We are classmate in Physics 199, right?” Hassan said. “Come with me, we have to talk.”

Hesitantly, Kasim followed the haughty fellow to the snack house near the MSU gate. Hassan chose the table at the back. “Sit down!” he said while casually opening his Polo shirt to cool off a bit.

Kasim’s eyes were riveted to the object on Hassan’s left chest. Kasim almost touched it if not Hassan roared, “I told you to sit down, not to stare at my chest. Are you gay?”

“Sorry,” said Kasim timidly, “I was just mesmerized by that thing on your chest.”

“Really?—never mind—your being gay doesn’t matter to me,” snapped Hassan. “Gay or not, you must do my thesis, or else you go home with a black eye or with blood oozing down your nose! Take your pick.”

“That’s outrageous, but,” Kasim said calmly, “you don’t need to intimidate me. Just consider your thesis done, brother.”

“That’s good, brother,” said Hassan, mimicking Kasim’s slow pronunciation of the word “brother,” and suddenly slamming a P500 bill on the table before heading out the door shouting, “Pay what you eat. Remember to hand me the thesis after two months. I’ll be watching over you. I know where you live.”

After the incident, his friends told Hassan that Kasim was now very busy—frequently visiting the library and barely attending any of his classes. Sometimes, they saw him in the Campus Net or the Next Step. As time went by, he was seen less and less in the campus as if doing a disappearing act.

Two weeks before the appointed time, Kasim was no longer seen anywhere. He wasn’t even seen going out of his house. This troubled Hassan. Riding on his teal-blue racing motorbike, he went to Kasim’s house to investigate. Kasim’s mother, Hja. Kumala, told Hassan to go directly to his room.

The door was ajar so he went directly inside startling Kasim who was encoding on his computer. His face, Hassan noticed, had a look of a person terribly shocked—or perhaps he was ill? Kasim’s face was haggard; its color, ashen, almost without blood.

“What brings you here, brother?” Kasim muttered almost inaudible as if conserving his energy.

“What—” Hassan stammered. “You looked terribly ill.” Then, he glanced at the computer screen, walked closer to it, and pressed the mouse. What Hassan saw surprised him: Kasim was doing Hassan’s thesis despite Kasim’s illness. Hassan anxiously clicked the “My Documents” only to be surprised further that it contained only one folder: HASSAN FILES.

Hassan faced Kasim and yelled, “What do you think you’re doing, man? When I asked you to do my thesis, I didn’t mean that you stopped doing yours! Besides, you look—you are—sick! You should be resting on that bed!”

“No matter. Everything isn’t important anymore, brother,” Kasim said. “I’m dying. I’m happy that before I die, I’ve done something good.”

“What—?” Hassan was alarmed. “Surely, you’re not dying, my friend! Print my thesis. Let me continue what you’ve started.”

“Let me finish it, brother,” Kasim said, a trace of a smile in his lips. “My two-month ultimatum isn’t yet over, I believe.”

“This isn’t your work, man!” Hassan said. “This is mine. Give me the hard copy. Now!”

“As you wish,” Kasim said as he reluctantly printed the unfinished thesis.
Clutching the papers in his hands, Hassan bid goodbye to Kasim and his family. When he was out of the gate, he felt a warm liquid rolling down his face. For the first time in his life, he was crying. Not minding the strangers looking at him, he negotiated the road to his house, while tears were streaming down his cheeks.

For the following weeks, Hassan’s friends missed him in their hideout. Some visited him but he refused to go with them saying that he was busy with his thesis. His friends taunted him. Some grew angry, feeling discarded by him. Yet Hassan persisted to ignore them. He spent all his time working on the thesis that Kasim started out for him. So, when he faced the panel of erudite, strict, and skeptical professors to defend his thesis, he was able to do it fairly well.

When their graduation came, Kasim wasn’t there; so, after the ceremony, he drove to Kasim’s house, ignoring Apa’ Ammak’s loud cry calling him back. Kasim was integral to his success. He felt it proper to show his diploma to Kasim and thank him.
“Yo, Kasim! Yo!” Hassan, his toga still on, yelled at the gate.

One of Kasim’s sisters opened the gate and surprised Hassan with a gesture he less expected. The girl hugged him and cried on his chest. The tears of joy, Hassan thought. She then led him to the house.

Barely inside the door, each of Kasim’s four siblings alternately hugged him. Some kissed him. All of them are happy with my graduation, Hassan thought. But where are you, Kasim?

Kasim’s father, Hji. Amirul Ismael, hold Hassan’s hand and embraced him saying, “Congratulations, son! But I’m sorry, your brother Kasim is no longer here to congratulate you.”

Bewildered, Hassan disengaged from the embrace and said, “Where’s he, sir? I came here to show him my diploma. I’ve made it because of him. Thanks for the warm welcome, though you hardly know me. I wasn’t even a good friend to your son!”

“Listen, son. Kasim is now on a journey. Before he went, he told me that he was happy to go because he’d finally fulfilled his mission—to find you.”

“To find me—that’s his mission?”

“Yes, and he asked me to tell you about this only when you graduate—you and Kasim are true brothers. He found the proof on your left chest—that odd birthmark you have there.” Hji. Amirul’s voice unsteady, he added, “I thought he could wait for the graduation rites to finish, but he already went this morning to meet with Allah. Kasim is gone, son.”

When Hassan hadn’t replied, Hji. Amirul continued, “I really don’t know if I should laugh or cry, now. But I think it’s fair for you to know that I’m your father and Hja. Kumala is your mother. You were stolen in the hospital when you were still an infant. Welcome back, son!”

Hassan threw himself to the inviting arms of Hji. Amirul. As he embraced his father, then his true mother, so alive, he was crying—really crying. All the members of the family—now his family—enveloped him in their loving arms, an assurance that they’d not allow to lose him again. Kasim might be gone, but he gave them Hassan, the long lost son—and brother—who no one knew was stolen from them by the barren previous wife of Hji. Amirul.

Later in Kasim’s room, Hassan sadly whispered into the dead man’s ear, “Thank you for the gift, dear brother. You give me my life back and my true family. You also give a Mother back to me—my real Ina’ at that.”

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