On the morning 19 months ago when Donald Trump descended the escalator in his glitzy Manhattan tower, waving to onlookers who lined the rails, many Americans knew little about him beyond that he was very rich and had a thing for firing people on a reality television show.
No one can plausibly say they knew that the man who launched his candidacy that day would be elected the nation's 45th president. As Trump prepares to take the oath of office Friday, many Americans still can't quite believe that a presidency that still seems almost bizarrely improbable becomes a reality on Friday.
"I thought it was a joke. He'd run, he'd lose early and he'd be out," said Christopher Thoms-Bauer, 20, a bookkeeper and college student from Bayonne, New Jersey, who originally backed Florida Sen. Marco Rubio's Republican candidacy.
Then, Thoms-Bauer recalled, came the night in November when he joined friends in a diner after a New Jersey Devils hockey game and watched, stunned, as Trump eked out wins in key states.
"Having this realization that he was really going to become president was really just a surreal moment," said Thoms-Bauer, who gave his write-in vote to Evan McMullin, a former CIA agent who ran as a conservative alternative to Trump. "It still doesn't make sense."
For all the country's political divisions, plenty of people on both sides of the aisle share that disbelief.
"I thought there was no way he could win," said Crissy Bayless, a Rhode Island photographer who on Thursday tweeted a picture of the Statue of Liberty holding her face in her hands, despairing over Trump's imminent inauguration.
"How am I feeling? Wow.. disgusted. nauseous and honestly like I'm in a nightmare," Bayless, 38, wrote in a conversation via email.
When Barack Obama won the White House in 2008, the election of the nation's first black president felt to many like one of the most improbable moments in the nation's political history. The idea of the election of a white billionaire born of privilege feels implausible to many in very different ways — and that may say as much about the country as it does about Trump.
When Trump announced his candidacy, Kayla Coursey recognized him as the developer who had tried and failed to build a golf course she'd opposed in her hometown of Charlottesville, Virginia. She recalled him as stubborn and resistant to pressure from local residents and officials. That, she said made his candidacy for president feel like a joke. Trump's election felt downright surreal, she said.
In the weeks since, "there was always the hope that things will somehow magically become better. However, now we know (Friday) at noon we're going to be welcoming President Trump, which is surreal in and of itself," said Coursey, a college student in Roanoke, Virginia.
David Sawyers, a 42-year-old truck unloader from Grindstone, Pennsylvania, who backed Sen. Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary before voting for Trump, said the big crowds that turned out for the candidate's rallies convinced him the billionaire could win. But he never felt certain, not when he recalled how Al Gore had won the popular vote in 2000, but lost the presidency to George W. Bush.
"You follow history," said Sawyers, who's happy with the outcome, "and there are some points where you definitely know history is being made and tomorrow is one of those times."
Sawyers will be working during Friday's inauguration, so he plans to record it and watch it later. But others said they remain so stunned by Trump's election it will be best if they turn away.
Tyler Wilcox, a 23-year-old musician in Riverton, Utah, has been dreading inauguration day. He lists his location on Twitter as "Not My President" and is planning to avoid all coverage of the ceremonies.
"I just feel like it's, I guess you can say, the beginning of the end," he said.
And Coursey, who identifies as "queer" and is deeply worried by the threat she believes Trump's administration poses to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans, said she would avoid joining other students in the dorm television lounge to watch the inauguration.
"I'm concerned that I'd be just a crying mess in the corner, or that somebody would say something and I wouldn't hold my tongue or I'd end up getting in some kind of a physical argument," she said.
Instead, Coursey said, she plans to search for a recording of Trump's speech once its over, when she can watch it in private That way, she figures, she can pause it in uncomfortable moments when the presidency she never imagined becomes a little too real.
Associated Press writer Matt Sedensky in New York, Samantha Shotzbarger in Phoenix and Michael Sisak in Philadelphia contributed to this story. Geller reported from New York.