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  • Me and All the Other Sevens of the World
  • Kate Ryan (bio)

My mother was born 31 years and 49 days before me. In that time, I burrowed into her core like a ticking time bomb, or so she likes to say in so many words, before I erupted into this water-hungry world nine pounds round and she restored herself with a mocktail of tropical juices. All of this went down on a bright blue winter afternoon—the birthing, the bombing—just a mile’s drive from the Pacific Ocean. Her mother was there, the smallest of us Russian dolls, chatting nonstop to her seventh and best husband in the lobby, her squeals trailing down the laminated halls. Before trading in the seashell-patterned hospital gown for an oversized crew-neck and leggings, before coiling her long, root beer bob into a clip and packing all the lip tints and powders she hadn’t touched for days into her lumpy leather purse, my mother would enjoy a moment of silence with her newborn baby. She sat upright in bed with her hands folded in her lap like a choirgirl and waited for the nurse to arrive with the best possible parts of herself mopped up and bundled. When the nurse arrived at last, my mother sighed in the politest possible way and said, “Cute baby, but it’s not mine.”

I was five when she told me this story for the first time, regaling me with her maternal sixth sense. I didn’t get the joke that I could never be mistaken for someone else’s daughter. As her miniature mirror image, my father’s friends would do double takes upon meeting me and ask, “You’re sure she’s not the milk man’s?” Her story didn’t stir up the slightest bit of fear in me that I could have so easily been someone else’s—not that anyone asked. How could I be sad if I never knew the difference? I wasn’t so sure a baby could belong to anyone to begin with. I belonged to this state [End Page 51] and its tall, langy palms, effete and ornamental as narrow neckties. I inhaled this county’s quilt-like marine layers and awesome smog sunsets. I got this place in all its cool distance and it got me. What actually kept me up at night was the dazzling thought my mother might not be human at all, but a rat king—as in, a king of rats—filling out a suit of human skin. There she goes applying hand cream, I’d think, rolling dough in her oak-gold kitchen, gliding down her grand staircase. Doing everything rats do when pretending to be human.

Getting switched at birth happens more often than you might think, in large part because it’s impossible to know which kids were switched if no one thought to notice. My mother didn’t need to check our wristlets to see if they both carried her married name. She knew on sight, on instinct, on a private familiarization with the thing that was once living inside her and now out. “You can check all the wristbands you want,” she told the nurse, “but that’s not my baby.” At the time, my mother couldn’t have known I’d grow up to favor dirty overalls over flouncy dresses, glued-on mustaches over princess tea sets, unavailable women over zealous men. I’d fail to inherit her knack for gardening, leaving a trail of dead cacti in my wake. She couldn’t have known yet, though maybe she did, that I’d reject every likeness between us in a tired attempt to underscore the damage that had already been done.

I’ve been thinking about all of this lately because my roommate has me hooked on birth charts. Give her your name, your birth date, and the approximate time you took your first sip of air and she’ll spit back your greatest hopes and fears along with your co-working style. She doesn’t do the math on her own, which involves some tetchy alchemy of rising moons and tilting star...