Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Plumbing Problems: A Love Story

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There's something wrong with Kat's plumbing. Kat doesn't know where she first heard those words as they apply to a woman's lower anatomy. She does know that as Jasper drives the two of them up the craggy northern California coast, she's asking for frequent pee stops; sort of a role reversal from when they were younger and she did all the driving.

At sixteen, Jasper's a brand new driver. Kat and Jasper's mother-son excursion up from the Bay Area to Oregon is planned as much for Jasper to get behind-the-wheel experience, as it is to re-cement a relationship that's taken a few detours away from a bond that Kat once took for granted. And it's to help Jasper pull the rest of the way up from a depression that rendered him practically comatose.
"Jasper, I gotta pee." In profile Jasper's strong nose and sharp chin make him look like a boy version of Kat. Only his blue-grey eyes are in marked contrast to her dark, guarded ones, although sometimes it's that wariness that helps remind her of their connection.

"How bad you gotta go?" he asks, eyes straight ahead.

"Bad enough that I'll use some trees if you don't mind pulling over soon."

The tires of the old Acura crunch on the uneven dirt-and-pebble surface of a pull-off near Trinidad. When Kat crouches behind a pine tree there's a crumpled McDonald's bag, broken shards of glass nearby. There's a pulling sensation deep inside her even after she stands. She gazes for a minute toward the tangle of dark foliage that slopes west toward the Pacific, wondering what's wrong.

"You sure you don't have to go, too?" she asks after she climbs back up the hill.

Kat finds herself constantly checking to see how Jasper's doing these days. It was less than a year ago that Kat's only child found himself in the throes of a depression as thick as steel wool, as unanticipated as an accident.

"Nah, I'm okay," he replies. "You ready?" He likes this driving business so far, takes it seriously.

If Jasper remembers that it was less than an hour earlier that his mother had asked for a stop in a one-gas-station town off 101, he doesn't say so. Usually on long trips Kat's like a camel, but these last couple of days there's been an urgency that blots out all other physical sensations.

After the most recent pee break Jasper says he wants to stop somewhere so he can ride his skim board and Kat says all right. They pull off at a sign that says 'Coastal Access' and walk onto a nearly empty beach. Grey-black rock formations jut up haphazardly from an emerald ocean. Kat spreads out a towel and unscrews the top of the peach margarita she'd bought for fun in Arcata, and Jasper, pants legs rolled up, carries his skim board toward the softly lapping waves.

"Is it cold?" she calls out.

"Does the pope shit in the woods?"

She knows he's being cryptic on purpose. Jasper's always tried to impress people with his cleverness, even long before he ever sat in a carefully decorated therapy office in El Cerrito and told his therapist he felt suicidal. Then he'd decided -- despite Kat's misgivings -- that he'd prefer to live with a dad who has occasional lapses in sound judgment than to live with his mother at all. She felt supremely powerless for a time.

But now he's back again: back to a mom who loves him dearly but sometimes doesn't know the right thing to say. Jasper seems to be feeling much better now, at least he says so. Kat does her Mona Lisa smile, not sure if Jasper finds the water cold or not. It doesn't matter. She's just enjoying watching his lanky silhouette against the opaque blue sky.

"Hey, Kat, look," he shouts, as he positions his skim board at just the right angle to propel himself along in the shallow water. His arms reach out for balance as if he's on a skateboard. His brown hair, which in recent years has been red, blue, and bleached, still has the hint of a cowlick. She gives him a thumbs-up as he scoops up the board and then looks out toward the waves, waiting for an interval between them to position it and ride again.

In the car earlier in the day, Jasper stated, eyes on the road, that he didn't even feel like he was alive this time last year. Kat nodded her head and said sagely, "Yeah, I know."

On the beach she recalls sharp, well-defined images of Jasper from years past: He's three, pumping his legs furiously on a playground swing and going nowhere; "Push me, Mom," he says, and she does. And at four, swooping down a sandy slide head first, belly down, "Look at me, Mom," and she does. The noise and faces of everyone around them faded away like special effects in a movie.

"Why'd you call me 'Kat' and not 'Mom' down there?" she asks after he's had his fill of skim boarding, as he brushes sand from his feet.

"Cause I didn't want anyone else's mom to get confused," he answers, poker-faced.

"Jasper, there's like two other people on the whole beach -- oh, you jerk," she answers, just then noticing the mischievous gleam in the corners of his eyes. "Just -- call me 'Mom' next time, okay?" she says.

Lately it seems like Jasper's trying to pack a lifetime of humor, philosophical musings, and depth into his sixteen years. It seems as if he wants to reclaim the weeks of sophomore year he slept through, his depression wrapped around him then like a tightly woven net.

Now, leaving the parking lot, Kat looks toward the ocean as Jasper makes a tidy K-turn, and the foam on the water's surface reminds her of a billion cups of cappuccino. She imagines holding bits of it in her hand, blowing and blowing on it until it turns into nothing.

That night, in a motel room near Ashland Kat lies on her stomach with a pillow over her head to blot out the traffic noise from I-5. Deep down inside she feels a pressure, like tiny fingers pressing on the inside of her bladder. Or maybe her uterus; she can't exactly pinpoint it. It's accompanied by a long, slow ache. In the wide bed she allows her mind to wander to the lonely possibility of serious illness. The 'C' word flashes in the forefront of her brain like a neon sign, and she thinks about the people she knows who have it, friends of friends who have died from it recently.

She thinks about dying.

Over the years she's been plagued by her own depression. There've been times she composed eloquent suicide notes, then didn't follow through. She always felt that no matter when death did come, she'd be ready for it. Sometimes, even at forty-eight, she feels like she's done enough: visited enough countries, written enough stories, painted enough pictures, had enough conversations.

But she's not done being mom yet, and for Jasper and others who love her, a premature death would be devastating -- or so she thinks.

She's smack-dab in the middle of menopause, though she's been fortunate enough not to be plagued by hot flashes or night sweats. She's even been able to keep her emotions in check, allowing for more time to focus on things like the passionately fluctuating moods of her teenage son. She takes reasonably good care of herself. So she's mystified as to what's causing her to feel this dull pain; why she keeps having to sit on the cool surfaces of unfamiliar toilets or pee in the shade of trees along the coast.

The next night, in another town, in another bed that strangers have slept in, Kat lies belly down with a rolled-up pillow squished under her pelvis. She aches more now than yesterday and she feel like pushing back against the hurt that's inside of her. She lies awake for hours listening to the voice inside her head diagnosing a furiously spreading virus that will finish her off before the week's end.

In the morning, tired, she throws up a little but convinces herself it's just nerves, that her night time fears of something serious are overblown. She says nothing to Jasper, and as they head toward the Oregon Caves, Jasper figures out how to use the cruise control on the Acura, something Kat had never even tried. He also wants her to know all about his idea for a car that drives itself. He explains, "See, you'd have this car in back and this other car in front, and the one in back would be the pilot car. There'd be a sensor attached to..."

Kat realizes she's not so much trying to understand his convoluted (but perhaps brilliantly conceived) explanation, as she's relishing the enthusiasm overflowing from his words. Whatever genetic, biochemical, environmental, or situational factors caused Jasper to topple into depression, he's clearly on his way out of the woods now.

"That sounds complicated. But cool. And I gotta pee. Can you stop somewhere?"

He does.

Kat hates going to the doctor. Hates the whispery sound of the paper that covers the exam table, the fluorescent lights that make her feel like she's inside out, the doctor's gloved hand with its cold, gooey lubricant.

Back home in Berkeley a couple of mornings later, she sits on her bed with her door open on purpose so Jasper can see her tears as he comes down the stairs from his attic room to the bathroom. She's ready for some sympathy now. Ready to prove that she needn't lay claim to the compassion in their family. She sniffs loudly and he stops short.

"What's wrong, couldn't sleep?" Jasper knows his mom has had some nights where insomnia renders her a wreck the next day.

"Something's not right with me. I hurt -- here," she says, and she places a vanilla hand below her belly.

He says, "Ooh," in a tone of uncertainty, and continues to the bathroom. It's not, Kat thinks, that he doesn't care. He just doesn't know what to say. His mind is already on his next trip of the summer, a camping trip to Big Basin with a recent girlfriend, Callie, who has her own car.

Kat hates going to the doctor, yet she does, after sending Jasper off with the cell phone and a promise to call home as soon as he gets to Big Basin. She hates going to the doctor, hates trying to pee into a paper cup when the warm golden liquid wants to go everywhere else but in it. But she can't ignore the pain any longer.

Dr. Beatty didn't know Kat sixteen years ago when she was pregnant with Jasper, but she's known her for a while; saw her through an unplanned pregnancy in her early forties by an ex-boyfriend who wanted to get back together. (Kat was almost relieved when the pregnancy ended in miscarriage. It certainly made things simpler.)

Now, as she sits on the exam table waiting for Dr. Beatty to tell her if her condition is life threatening, she wraps and unwraps an index finger around her gown's paper belt and wonders if the fruit of her womb, her only biological child, might be making love in a tent in the redwoods with a girl Kat's met just twice.

She has a urinary tract infection. Dr. Beatty writes a prescription for antibiotics and tells her she'll probably feel better within a few hours. Kat's breath comes out raggedy but reassured when the doctor says, "Some women get them all the time, like every time they have sex. Other women never get them. And some fall somewhere in between."

Only then does she remember the myriad boyfriends and one-night-stands that resulted in all those trips to the college health clinic, although back then there was usually itching involved. It's been a long time since Kat's had revolving sex partners, or any partner at all for that matter. She's simply taken her health for granted for a while now, just as she once took for granted that with enough love, her offspring would never fall victim to depression as she once had, and that they'd always know what to say to each other. But now that Jasper's feeling better about himself, she wants affirmation that he cares about her as much as she cares about him.

With that in mind, she places her little orange plastic bottle of GENERIC CIPRO 500MG with NO REFILLS in a conspicuous place near the kitchen sink after she gets home. As Dr. Beatty assured her, she feels much better by dinner time, and she sleeps through that night and the next without excess bathroom trips.

Within five minutes after Jasper walks in the door with a dusty backpack and his skim board he laments, "I can't seem to keep a girlfriend for more than three weeks." He sounds disgusted -- with himself, with the world, and Kat thinks: Uh oh. It seems Callie made an excuse about not wanting to be the one to do all the driving to see him, and Jasper doesn't have his own car yet. Suddenly it doesn't matter if Jasper never notices the orange pill bottle on the kitchen window sill, or if he never asks if his mother went to the doctor to find out what was making her hurt. Kat wants to wrap her arms around Jasper tightly, like she did when he was little. She wants to be his buoy. She wants to keep him from sinking ever, ever again.


Annie Kassof’s essays and articles have appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, LA Times Magazine, Adoptive Families Magazine, KQED FM’s Perspectives, and more. She’s currently at work on a memoir called Kaleidoscope Family, about her experiences as a foster and adoptive parent. A “veteran” single parent, she lives in Northern California with her son, daughter, and foster baby. “Plumbing Problems: A Love Story” is her first published work of fiction.


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