The morning fog hadn’t worn off yet the first time it happened. He was in the bathroom, combing his hair. The thought popped into his head. Loudly. Forcefully. That isn’t really your hair. He was so surprised by the sudden thought that had come out of nowhere that he didn’t have time to challenge the idea. His bald pate glared at him in the mirror. On the one hand, he knew it was wrong, but at the same time, he knew it wasn’t. He remembered that he’d been combing his hair just a second ago, but he also remembered that he’d gone bald in his late twenties. He finished getting dressed and headed to the kitchen. On the way, he glanced at the family photos in the hall. Sure enough, he was bald in all of them.
Quick breakfast and he was off to work. As he pulled into the parking lot, the unbidden thought came again. This isn’t really your car. What a strange idea. He clearly remembered buying the new BMW. But he also remembered not being able to get financing and settling for a used car instead. The ancient beater sputtered as he pulled into a parking space. When he got to his office, another alien idea attacked him. This isn’t really your office. He could see his name fading on the door plate. No. He refused to acknowledge the idea. He’d worked hard for that promotion. The office was his, he’d earned it. His name solidified.
Okay. He could fight it. Resist it. He somehow couldn’t make himself panic about it, but he didn’t have to just give in and accept the reality that was trying to impose itself on him. The thought kept coming back all day, but he held it at bay. The junker didn’t want to start, and he barely made it home in time for dinner. He made normal small talk and did normal things, and couldn’t make himself say anything about the strange thoughts that kept trying to force their way into his mind. Then another one came. These aren’t really your children. His two little boys started to fade. They didn’t notice, and neither did his wife.
He concentrated. My children. Mine. He focused on them. Remembered holding them as infants. Staying up late to comfort them through teething pains. First steps and first days of school. He refused to let them be taken from him.
The boys solidified. The invasive ideas changed tack. This isn’t really your house. For a moment, he thought he was in a grimy apartment instead of his home. But he had a whole day’s practice now, and he pushed back. Filled his mind with memories of plumbing repairs and mortgage payments and filling out address cards.
The ideas backed off. He started to think it was over. He got ready for bed. Joined his wife in the bedroom. That isn’t your wife. He fought the idea. Remembered anniversaries, birthdays, romantic weekends.
That isn’t your wife, the idea repeated. He had learned to fight back, but so had the invader. It tainted his memories. He remembered arguments. He remembered long periods of loneliness. Some were his fault. Most were his fault. Times he’d let the bond between them grow slack in the name of getting ahead at work. Times when he’s been jealous of new friends or old friends. Some were her fault, sure; she hadn’t always appreciated his needs or known how to be what he needed. The idea even threw his children back at him, forcing him to dwell on those long months when they’d both poured so much of their love into their children that it seemed like they didn’t have any left for each other. It made him think about every doubt, every slight, every dark night. That isn’t your wife, it insisted. And he didn’t give in, exactly, but just for a second, he questioned it.
That was all it took. The new memories hit him hard enough to break his concentration, and he was standing next to the pull-out bed in the shitty apartment he’d rented after his last girlfriend had left him. The next morning, he put on his good suit. That’s not your suit. Of course it was, his wife had picked it out for— Right. It wasn’t his suit. He was wearing a cheap off-the-rack number. He drove his broken-down car to the office and sat at his desk in the cubicle he still occupied since he’d been passed over for that big promotion, until the idea came into his head that this wasn’t his job.
He had just failed to buy a coffee (that wasn’t his wallet) about a week later when he saw her. He tried not to catch her eye. Even if he still remembered the life they’d had together, to her, he was probably just some scary homeless man. She saw him all the same, and though he tried to shuffle away, there was a flicker of recognition in his eyes. She bought two coffees and offered him one.
“Sorry,” she said. “I— Have we met? I’m Sarah.”
“I’m—” he started. Then he hesitated. Listened to the thoughts. He sighed. “I’m nobody.” He left the coffee in her hand, turned, and walked away. By the time he got to the corner, he wasn’t there anymore. And she only had the one coffee anyway.