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Reversal of Fortune by Derkx
Reversal of Fortune
I hated high school. But not for the reasons you might think. I wasn’t an awkward teenage with zits and greasy hair and no social skills. Actually I was tall and good-looking. I wasn’t as beefed-up as some of the other football players but I had a well-developed physique with firm muscles and hardly any body fat. My hair was thick and lustrous and sun-kissed blond. I tanned easily (never burned) without spending much time in the sun. Athletics came easy to me. I even had the kind of name that inspired popularity. "Bryce."
So, what was the problem with high school? All of the above traits. I was lucky with the genes I inherited, that’s all. But those traits were mostly superficial. I had a brain, too, although my intelligence was overlooked, ignored as irrelevant.
At my high school, the athletes were graded differently than the student body at large. No male athlete was ever flunked; he was needed for whatever sports team. The entire grade range for us was D to B. Athletes who should have failed miserably were passed with mostly Ds and a few Cs thrown in for good measure. The D students were upgraded to C. The best students might be awarded some B grades. Intelligent performance wasn’t acknowledged for the athletes. We were only given A grades for physical education classes.
I had to argue with my teachers to get grades close to what I actually earned. It may sound like I was pushy and whiny, expecting to be given better grades based on my status. That was not the case. (In anonymous standardized aptitude tests, I excelled.) When I went to my senior-year English teacher to discuss my final term paper, which constituted about 90% of my grade, I learned he never even read it! That was the system I was up against. It was assumed that those who played sports couldn’t possibly be scholars.
The system made it hard to get into college. But once there, I was able to start from scratch and get a decent education. An excellent education with several degrees.
Of course, I was popular in high school. Too popular. The other guys saw me as competition but they figured their appeal could only increase by association with me. Even the alpha males wanted to chum up with me, to be seen as being my buddies. The popular girls fawned over me, touching me, slipping me notes, phoning me all the time. I don’t know how many claimed to be my girlfriend. None was. I never dated anyone more than once. Oh sure, I ate up their praise after a game (whether our team played well or not). I played along a bit. I went to the "in" parties (thrown when parents were away) but I never touched the illegal liquor that flowed there. My excuse was always that I was in training. The truth was I didn’t want to lose my good judgment and get entangled in some disastrous, messy relationship. I didn’t like the popular students, the up-and-coming, go-getter, wealthy and privileged popular students who ruled the school. They were the gang. And I didn’t get to know any others, with one exception.
That exception was Stanley. "Stan" to me. He was one of the school’s recognized scholars but he was shunned as a hopeless nerd. At sports or any kind of physical games, he was "inadequate" and "not a team player." I liked him from when we first met.
We were in the school library one day. I was browsing through the fiction shelves, looking for something to check out.
I picked out Andre Gide’s "The Immoralist" and began reading the cover.
"I think you’d find that one intriguing." The voice belonged to Stan, who was in some of my classes. "I wouldn’t write a paper on it, though. Not at this school." That was a good observation. The book was one of many the school pulled from its shelves in later, ultra-conservative years."
I decided to take it.
"Let me know what you think of it," he said, "if you want."
I appreciated that he didn’t imply that the novel was beyond my scope of understanding. We hadn’t exchanged even ten words before but I appreciated what he said.
We did discuss the book when I finished. It wasn’t a favorite for either of us but the story was, as Stan said, "intriguing." We became friends and not for the usual reasons. Stan would rib me about being a "pretty boy" and I’d razzed him about being a "super nerd." He avoided my entourage. (Too bad I couldn’t shake the gang.) He never came to any of my sports event and never asked for a recap. (I’d only volunteer whether our team had won or lost.) We shared books, compared movies, and had intelligent conversations.
So, what happened when I went to college?
Well, I started out with a football scholarship but I dropped out after the first year. I mean, I dropped out of sports, not college. Sports took up too much of my time and were a threat to my well-being. (No one likes a concussion. One was more than enough for me.) So I scraped through with odd jobs and student loans.
One day a photographer was on campus shooting photos for a new brochure for the college. I was "discovered." One thing led to another and soon I was making decent money as a model. Yeah, I know. In spite of my own objections, I was relying on my good looks. But that’s what paid for my education, degree after degree.
After all that time, high school was not entirely behind me. As I became successful as a model (to my own surprise), the old high-school gang that I never much liked became obsessed with drawing me into their circle. I didn’t live anywhere near them, so they didn’t show up at my door. Somehow one of them also got my phone number, then my email address. I was bombarded with one-way correspondence, addressing me as "buddy" and "old pal." And the girls: "Remember that date we had? I think about it all the time." I ignored the attempts to "meet up again" for old times’ sake. But they were unrelenting! They all wanted to be able to say they were close friends with Bryce the Model.
My only close friend was Stan, even though he was far away. He’d finished his post-graduate education early and had become a fiction writer. He wasn’t a best-selling author but he was critically acclaimed. And he didn’t have all the old high-school popular kids clamoring at his door. Not until the reunion was announced.
I had just started a hiatus from my modeling so I could take a breath and put my education to use. I’d recently bought an isolated seaside cottage and was studying the local crustacean population.
"How are your crusty friends getting on?" Stan asked in a phone call.
"They’re healthy and hungry. Got any algae to spare? And some of them are carnivores, you know."
He laughed at that. "That reminds me. Carnivores. Meat-eaters. Have you got your invitation yet?"
"Invitation? No. To what?"
"Our tenth-year high school reunion!"
I moaned. "They would have sent it to my old address. It’ll probably be forwarded to me in a few days."
He went on. "Now that the invitations have been mailed, I’m sure there’ll be a barrage of follow-up emails and text messages and phone calls. In fact, I’ve already heard from them."
"Yeah. Not that they’re anxious for me to come. They know I’m friends with you and they want me to pressure you, the male model and old sports idol, to attend."
I scoffed at this. "They might not want me the way I look now. I’m quite a bit out of shape." I caught my reflection in a mirror and touched my lower chest. "No six-pack abs while I’m on hiatus. That’s a lot of work to keep that kind of shape. Thank god I won’t have to for a while."
Yeah, I was out of shape. Eventually I’d have to go back to doing some modeling gigs to keep up my income. Even with a few extra pounds just then, I could get a lot of work if I kept my shirt on.
The high school gang wouldn’t know or care about a couple of pounds as long as my overall appearance was still appealing. They’d still be pestering me forever. But an idea was starting to form in my head.
"Let’s talk about this in a few days," I said.
Eventually I agreed to go to the reunion if Stan would go. He’d stayed with me for a couple of days and we’d drive down together.
"What’re you up to?" He asked immediately when I opened the door to him several weeks later. He squinted his eyes and sniffed as if he smelled a plot.
"Like it?" I asked, unbuttoning my shirt and rubbing my furry, oversized belly. "Go ahead, touch it."
When he did, I slouched my shoulders and deliberately extended my belly further.
"I repeat: What’re you up to?"
"It’s simple," I said. "If I show up at the reunion looking unattractive, maybe the gang will leave me alone." (They were always "the old gang," never "my gang" or "our gang." I had no affection for any of them.) "If I’ve gone to seed, I’m of no value. They won’t want to be associated with me."
"So, you’re ruining your body for them?" He clearly didn’t like the idea. "It’s like a competition where they end up the winners."
"It is a sacrifice," I admitted. "But I’m being careful. I was cautious about how I added the weight so I won’t have too hard a time burning it off again. No stretch marks. And it really isn’t as bad as it looks. A lot of it is posture." I straightened up again and stopped pushing out my belly. "See?" I could even inhale my gut although I knew I’d have to work off the fat. "And I stopped manscaping."
"I see that," he said, lightly touching the hair on my belly and chest. "But will it work? Won’t they all have put on a few pounds, too? It wouldn’t be a big deal."
"Ah, yes. That’s why there’s a second part to my plan. You can help with it."
Stan didn’t like it. He didn’t want to play along.
"You’ve lost your marbles, Bryce! It won’t work and it’s not worth it anyway."
"It’s a one-time thing," I said. "If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t. But if it does, the gang may leave us alone forever."
He finally gave in. "It’s up to you. It’s your head!"
That night, after dinner, I set a chair in the kitchen and handed Stan my high-quality hair clippers. We’d already mapped out an outline on my head with a charcoal pencil.
"Last chance!" Stan cautioned me.
In a round pedestal mirror set on the counter, I watched. Stan touched the clippers to the center of my forehead hairline and pushed back, not much more than an inch. He took the long blond forelock and laid it reverently on the counter.
"What a shame!"
"It’ll grow back, Stan," I reassured him. "It’ll grow back." He’d never been obsessed with my looks like the others, but he didn’t like to see me "mutilate" (his word) myself either.
He gently made another cut and another, each time laying the newly cut strands alongside the others.
I enjoyed the vibrations of the clippers, like a gentle head massage. The quick chatter of the blades as they chopped like a lawn mower through my hair was exciting. I was savoring the experience.
Stan was not, not in the same way, but he seemed fascinated by the process. He was careful not to go past the charcoal markings while there was no guard on the clippers.
I was left with a fairly long fringe around the lower sides and back of my head. We’d decided to go for a male-pattern baldness look instead of a full head shave. We didn’t want the gang to think I’d lost my hair and gained weight from chemotherapy. My goal was separation, not pity.
When the top of my head was bare, Stan put a Number 3 guard on the clippers and drove them through the remaining hair.
"No," I concluded. "Too obvious. Too visual."
Stan redid his work using a Number 2 guard.
"That’s it!" I said.
Stan ran his hands over the stubble. "I’m going to cry."
"No, you’re not. You’re going to finish the job."
Stan lathered up my head and began shaving the top, very, very slowly. "You can’t have any razor nicks showing," he explained rightfully. Then he took off most of my sideburns and shaved around my ears and on my neck. "I’ll leave enough hair there to show above your collar."
That was an unintentional splash of water on my ego. I knew I had some hair on my shoulders and upper back; manscaping took care of that. I didn’t know it would show above my collar. Stan was right. With a mostly bald head that neck hair would be so obvious that it would be a sure turn-off.
Without drawing attention to or hiding what he was doing, Stan took the strands of my hair he’d laid out on the counter, gently rolled them into a plastic wrap, and tucked them into his suitcase.
I smiled but didn’t say anything.
When Stan and I arrived at the reunion location, we checked into the hotel where we’d be sharing a room. It wasn’t the recommended hotel, the one where the gang would be staying. It was rated about two stars lower, probably because it didn’t have a pool. It was also much less expensive, which the gang would be sure to know.
There was an early arrivals’ event earlier in the day, which we made a point of missing. We were only there for the main event.
In our room we set about preparing for the evening. We timed the follow-up head shave so I wouldn’t be pink and raw, and wouldn’t be stubbly either. I mentioned that, in preparing for this stunt, I had considered having my head waxed. I’d decided it would be a bad idea to rip out my hair follicles.
"That’s one good decision you’ve made," Stan said.
I put on the costume we’d planned. It was the first time I bought clothes from a charity shop, but I needed to have an outfit that was broken in. Khaki trousers that were too long and had permanent wrinkles around the knees. A narrow black belt to draw attention to my waist; there were marks showing that the belt had been let out several times. A not-quite-blue, polyester pullover shirt. A dingy white undershirt with a sagging, worn-out neckline. (It took a while for Stan and me to stretch it out and stain it to get the effect.) The undershirt had extra material. I was able to lower the waist position of the trousers, thicken up the lower part of the undershirt, and push out my belly to successfully create the effect of an overhanging gut. Stan frowned when I said I was proud of my efforts.
For his part, Stan just wore a button-down shirt and jeans. "No one will be looking at me anyway," he said, gratefully.
The girl at the high school gym’s check-in desk was probably a current student, so she wouldn’t know us. She gave us our name tags without comment.
Before we entered the gymnasium with its party decor, Stan poked me in the ribs. "Stop smiling so much. You’re not the cat who ate the canary. Not yet."
I really enjoyed the evening. Everyone who approached me looked first at my name tag. Their smiles faded quickly. They looked at my bald head and fringe, then down at my enlarged stomach area. "Bryce?" I’d be too modest if I said I was a great disappointment.
Still, it was a performance that I had to work at. "Bad knees" was my response to anyone’s encouragement for me to get out on the dance floor. Dinner was served as a buffet. To look the part, I had to keep going back for seconds. Of course, I couldn’t eat it all, so when no one was able to see, I’d push some of my food onto Stan’s plate or just leave my plate on another table then go back for more. Same with the drinks. I stuck with bottled beer but only took a few sips before going to the counter for a fresh bottle.
At one point I took a bottle into the men’s room. I didn’t need to urinate; I wanted to pour out the beer. But someone was already in there, at one of the urinals.
"Arnie," I greeted him.
He’d greeted me earlier but now glanced over at my name tag to be really, really sure I was who I was. "Bryce."
I went up to the urinal next to him, unzipped and pushed out my stomach. I flushed first (as some men do) for the noise, then pretended to urinate. I even let out a loud sigh to signify relief at draining my bladder. (I was having fun and figured I could repeat this behavior when I really did have to relieve myself later.)
I glanced over at Arnie. I wasn’t looking at his penis; I had no interest there. What I was pleased to see was that his gut was much larger than mine, and it was probably a well-developed permanent feature. When he saw me looking, he tried sucking in his belly but it didn’t make much different.
He finished first, then I pretended to finish and zipped up my trousers.
"I saw a billboard the other day," he said. "It was you in that ad. What was it? A promo for some island?" There it was, the dig I’d been waiting for was on its way. "You looked different." He looked at my belly (which I conscientiously positioned over my belt again) then up at my head. I was confident that the blond stubble wasn’t visible even under the bright restroom lights.
"Yeah. That was a long time ago," I answered. "I can’t do that kind of work now."
I wasn’t outright lying. I couldn’t do a photo shoot like that right then, not until my hair grew out and I dieted a bit. And "a long time ago" is a relative concept. The ad was only a year old. A year ago is a long time ago relative to this morning.
"Yeah. Things change, I guess." With that conclusion he left and I was able to pour out my beer so I could be seen going for another.
The evening progressed but was getting to be tedious. I kept up the pretense of non-stop eating and drinking until I was satisfied to hear someone refer to me as a pig. I managed to avoid anyone with a camera. I stopped enjoying the ruse. Stan didn’t seem to be having fun either.
Arnie was pretty much a loud mouth. After Stan and I left (early to give the others plenty of time to gossip), Arnie would spread the word. Bryce has gone to the dogs. He’s poor and had to stay at a cheap hotel. He’s unemployed. (Now, technically that was true. I was still on hiatus from my modeling career. My crustacean project was freelance even though a draft of my research had been accepted for a scientific journal.) Bryce has lost his hair and his looks. He’s a loser now and the gang would be better off not having anything to do with him. Him and that Stanley guy.
Stan was saved as well. His friendship with me was now a deficit instead of a draw. He’d spoken with a number of the other attendees but none for long. "What do mean, ‘what happened to Bryce?’ He’s fine," was his response to those who asked him about me. When he told any of them that he was a writer, they asked the typical questions he hated: "Have you ever been published?" (Multiple times.) "Have you written anything I would have read?" (I doubt it.) "Are you going to write a book about all of us?" (Definitely not.)
Back in our hotel we celebrated with a bottle of champagne. In all those hours, I couldn’t have drunk more than half a bottle of beer. I had to keep up a perfect performance. And I didn’t want to end up with a genuine beer belly.
When the next morning came, we had a light breakfast in our hotel then packed to leave. Some of the reunion attendees (mostly the same old gang) organized a breakfast at their hotel. We were not invited.
"We were not invited!" I exclaimed when we knew the hour of the event had passed. "We. Were. Not. Invited!"
Stan just grinned and kissed the bald top of my head. "It worked," he acknowledged. "But it was still a crazy idea!"
We were gleeful driving back to my place. We sang to the radio all the way (even over the news). I didn’t refresh my male-pattern baldness look but I didn’t obliterate it yet. Our primary goal was to get away as far and as quickly as possible. Home never looked better.
In the time we were away, my crustaceans had done nothing that would screw up my research. One of the first things I did when we got there was throw out whatever junk food was left in the kitchen. We’d picked up some fruit and vegetables on the way home, so I’d be able to prepare a healthy dinner later.
Stan said that he should go home and get back to the latest book he was writing. This high-school reunion had been a distraction he didn’t need. He had enough distractions in the noisy neighborhood where his apartment was located.
"Why don’t you stay here a while? You can write it here, can’t you? I know you brought your computer, so . . ."
In the end, he agreed to try it out for a week or so. If our arrangement worked out, maybe he’d move in for a few months. In the meantime he’d drive back to his apartment to pick up some clothes and other things he’d need.
"But the first thing we should do," Stan said, "is try to get you back to normal."
I laughed. "Yeah. I guess we should." I rubbed my head. "Just when I was starting to get used to this look." (I wasn’t.)
We set up in the kitchen again. Stan took up the clippers, without any guard, and buzzed off my remaining fringe of hair. Then he razor-shaved my entire head.
"How do I look?"
"Bald. Very, very bald. Completely bald."
I looked in the mirror and felt my entire head. "Cool. I hope the crustaceans recognize me."
I got up and started to pack away the clippers. Stan stopped me.
"No. Not yet. I want you to do the same to me."
"What? You want a haircut?"
"Uh-uh. I want you to shave my head. Just like yours."
There was no reason for him to be shaved and I figured he offered to make me feel better. But I didn’t feel bad. He knew that. I tried to talk him out of it, telling him that he didn’t need to do it just because I did. He had a full hair of hair, nicely cut. Maybe we should have dinner first and he could think about it. He might not really want it.
"I could shave it myself," he said, "but I’d rather have you do it."
"Okay," I finally agreed, "if you’re sure."
I couldn’t say exactly what went through his head as I took the clippers to it. He watched intently in the mirror as I buzzed long stretches atop his head. He didn’t panic or try to stop me. When I got to the back of his head and he couldn’t see anything in the mirror, he closed his eyes and began humming along with the clipper’s vibrations.
He said nothing when I finished with the clippers. He just sat, thinking his thoughts, and waited until I lathered him up and shaved him smooth. When I dabbed the last of the lather and hair stubble from his head, he felt it and studied his bald reflection from different angles.
I didn’t know what I should do with his hair so I did what he’d done. (I figured it would have been rude not to.) As I cut, I laid out the sheared tresses like he had mine. When I was done, I carefully placed it into a plastic food storage bag. What I was going to do with a bag of Stan hair, I had no idea.
While I cleaned up the mess and packed up my clippers once again, he explored the house.
"Do you really use all this?" he called from the small bedroom that was filled with exercise equipment.
"Yeah. But not all at once." Ha, ha. "And not every machine every day. . . . But I could use a little workout before dinner. Try to carve back this gut." I went into the room. I took off my shirt and squeezed a roll of belly fat between my thumb and forefinger. "Care to join me?"
"That’s a good idea," he said, stripping off his shirt. "I’m starting to get a little belly."
I laughed as I patted his tummy. It was certainly little. "Some toning will help."
We worked out for a while, expecting that we would increase our exercise time day by day. Then we showered and had dinner. A healthy dinner at last.
Stan’s hair grew back quickly, as did mine. We kind of enjoyed the fuzzy teddy-bear stage along the way, and then trying out different styles.
I got back into six-pack abs shape (with all the hard work that required) and took on occasional modeling gigs once again. My crustacean study was published in the science journal and I kept on with the project afterwards (which didn’t require any effort on the subjects’ part). Stan’s book was finished, final-drafted and scheduled for publication. He took almost an entire weekend off before starting on another.
If the high-school gang saw my new commercial modeling work, they must have figured the photos were taken years earlier. I didn’t really care if I left them confused. The important thing was that I never heard from the gang again.