It begins with the smallest of things. I stand in front of the window, looking through the books on the windowsill for my tattered copy of Animal Farm, because I want to quote a line from it in a paper.
“Sweetie,” I call out to my wife Rachel, who lies on the couch reading a magazine, her back to me. “Where’s Animal Farm? I can’t find it.”
She twists her body around to look at me. The sun collides brilliantly against her blonde hair. Her green eyes are lit up like emeralds. “You gave it away last year to Kate, remember? She wanted to read it. She took it with her after the party.”
My memory isn’t terrible, but sometimes — if I am preoccupied at the time that an incident occurs, or if I don’t think about it again for a while — I tend to forget things. Rachel, on the other hand, never forgets a thing. It’s almost as if an infinite tickertape lies spooled in her head, inching forward as it records steadily and infallibly.
I remember this party vaguely, but I do not remember giving the book to Kate. It was a valuable possession; it was one of the first books I owned. On the inside I had written my name in a childish scrawl.
“Are you sure? I love that book. I can’t believe I gave it to her.”
Rachel turns back to her magazine. “She said she would return it in a week. But I think both of you forgot.”
I feel a surge of irritation. I don’t know what to direct it at. Puddle rubs against my shins, almost like a cat, though she is a fifteen-pound Shih Tzu. I push her away with my foot; she grunts unhappily, and I feel bad, so I bend down and kiss the white patch on her forehead. She looks at me balefully with her one eye; the other one is closed up permanently. We brought her home from the shelter that way. I tug at her ears the way she likes them tugged. She inclines her head, pressing her ear flaps against my fingers. I used to find it endearing until the vet told us she had itchy ears due to a recurring infection.
Rachel isn’t paying attention anymore and I give up looking for the book.
The next morning I am on the toilet when I realize that Rachel is buying new toilet paper. I don’t like it. I am a creature of habit.
“Rachel!” I yell through the half-open bathroom door. “Rachel!”
“What? What happened?” She calls out from the bedroom.
“The toilet paper. It’s different.”
“You bought different toilet paper.”
“No. Of course I didn’t. It’s on an Amazon subscription.”
“No, it’s different.”
“It’s not. It’s really not.”
Later I wash my hands, grab a roll of the toilet paper, and march over to where she is sitting, doing something on her laptop.
“See. It’s too thin. It’s not the same one.”
She looks at it, frowning. “It’s the same one.”
“I’ll show you.” She opens a tab on her laptop, goes to Amazon, and in a minute or two — while I stand there unhappily — she brings up our Amazon order history.
“Look. Same brand all the way for the last five years.”
I scan the list. “Maybe they made a mistake. It’s different from what we get normally. It’s thinner.”
“I can’t tell the difference.”
I’m unhappy but I don’t know at what: the fact that the toilet paper is too thin, or that something has changed in my life, or that my wife does not believe me.
I stomp off into the closet to find something to wear. Puddle raises her head and looks at me with what is either concern or a hope that I will take her out for a walk. I shake my head no at her emphatically and she drops her head back on the floor and sighs loudly, a shockwave of fat radiating down her body and ending with a swish of her tail.
The next morning I realize that the shower-head is different. It has five jets instead of three. I know it used to have three jets because I researched shower-heads for a week online and bought this one from a startup in Menlo Park trying to save the world by building more efficient bathroom fixtures. I walk out of the bathroom swaddled in a towel and open up my laptop, dripping water on the living room carpet.
“What happened?” Rachel asks.
“Nothing, just checking something.”
The picture on the startup’s website shows a shower-head with five jets.
“What the fuck,” I say.
Rachel looks at me with what is either concern or a hope that I will go for a walk with Puddle.
“Are you okay?” she asks.
“Yes, yes,” I reply.
I take my phone out and make a same-day appointment with my doctor.
He is a little chubbier than I remember him. And he isn’t bald anymore.
“Things are not as I remember them,” I tell him.
“Forgetfulness,” he writes on his notepad.
“No, I mean, things are different. I just remember things differently.”
He looks up at me. “Okay. We’ll run a bunch of tests. We’ll have the results in a few days.”
The next day the brand of soap is different. After that it’s the color of the curtains. The white squares on the bathroom floor become black hexagons.
I get the scans done at the hospital. The parking lot is on a different side of the hospital than it used to be. The air dancer at the car dealership next door is orange instead of blue. As I lie in the CAT scan machine, I think worriedly of all the things it might be. Perhaps I have some kind of brain tumor. I wonder what Rachel will do without me. Perhaps she will marry again. Afterwards I want a cup of chai and go to the Indian place on El Camino opposite the hospital, but it does not serve chai and has never done so, the boy at the counter assures me.
On day 10 the walls of the house are a deeper shade of blue. I pull up old photos of the house from my external hard disk. I hold the laptop with the photos in full-screen mode against the wall. The colors match perfectly.
The doctor calls me in to discuss the results.
He now has a bushy beard that it must have taken a year to grow.
“Perfectly normal,” he says. “No signs of a tumor. Nothing at all wrong with you.”
I feel an odd mix of relief and anxiety.
“I was worried it might be Alzheimer’s.”
“Alzheimer’s. My father had it. I was worried it might be that.”
“Can you say that again?”
“Alzheimer’s. A-L-Z… Alzheimer’s.”
“Hmm. Haven’t heard that one before. Maybe it has a different name in Northam?”
He looks at me with what is either concern or a hope that I will walk out of the door. He scribbles something on a note. “Nothing neurologically wrong with you. Here is a therapist referral. Go talk to her!”
At home I open up Google to find out what Northam is. Page www.google.com not found, it says. I turn to look at Rachel.
Her hair is brown. She has a tattoo on the back of her neck.
On day 18, my appendectomy scar disappears. On day 22, Puddle looks up at me with two wide, trusting, amber-brown eyes. On day 24, she turns into a French Bulldog. I start a journal of these changes. “Today there is a tulsi plant in the yard that wasn’t there yesterday,” I write.
The next day when I open the journal to add an entry about the color of my socks, it says: “Today there is a coriander plant in the yard that wasn’t there yesterday.” I walk outside and examine the plant. It smells like the curries my mother used to make.
I walk back to the bedroom, where Rachel is still asleep on her side of the bed. I get back under the covers and examine her carefully. It occurs to me that all her parts are different: her breasts are larger, her lips thinner, her hair no longer curly. I lie in bed with a stranger. Yet this is the same person I married. This intrigues me in a ship-of-Theseus sort of way.
I reach out and touch her. She stirs slightly. I lean into her and kiss the tattoo on her neck. She turns her face to me, her eyes still closed. She’s smiling softly. I kiss her on the lips and sink into her body. The woman who was my wife did not like me touching her as she slept. The woman who has taken her place wants me in her.
We make love every day. She becomes something else: raven-haired, coffee-eyed, sapota-skinned, a giver of gifts. Her voice is low and throaty. Sometimes I do not like the changes; but I remind myself, this too shall pass, and soon it does. I pour myself into her, fitting her strange contours.
When I talk to her I am careful and non-committal. Rachel now has a brother she did not have; he lives in a city I have never heard of. She has strange hobbies and interests, and sometimes she disappears for the entire day into the outside world. I do not leave the house; I am not sure what lies outside anymore. Puddle is now a parrot, so I do not have to walk her. I stop working on my papers. I do not see the point; tomorrow I might have a million dollars in my bank account, or zero, it does not matter what I do today.
I wake up eagerly each day, scanning for changes. I run my hands over Rachel’s body, looking for deltas, tiny or large: piercings, tattoos, the shape of her nose or the curve of her eyelids. I walk around the house, searching. There is always something.
“I love you,” I say with my eyes closed one morning. I say this a lot now to the sequence of women who are Rachel.
“What?” says a thin, high-pitched voice that is at once intensely familiar and deeply alien.
I open my eyes and look to my right, where Rachel lies. Her eyes are wide open; they are jade green, twin pools in a landscape of pale sandstone.
“Nothing,” I say calmly. I sit up, step into my bath slippers, and walk to the bathroom. I step around Puddle as she snores, one good eye slightly open and fixed on me. In the bathroom the roll of tissue paper is soft and thick. It falls noiselessly on the tiny white squares that tile the bathroom floor.
MAHESH RAMAN is a bicoastal writer and computer scientist. His work has appeared previously in Necessary Fiction and Corium Magazine.