Distancing #17: Sunbather


I wasn’t leading the dog so much as the dog was leading me. I was helpless in the wake of her joy. I skip-shuffled along, holding her leash taut in one gloved hand, as she trotted to the end of the lampless road and began to ascend the mild hill. At the top she squatted and stared at me with her blue-gray eyes in a way that meant I can’t do this with you looking, you know

“Sure, right,” I said, and looked instead at the absent yawn of sky. Around us, tomatoes were strewn like curdled hearts in the thick midday snow. The dog pressed her nose against my hip to let me know that Business Was Concluded. My fingers ached as I fished a plastic bag from my pocket. It ballooned in the cold wind. A lull settled. There was no one else in our vicinity. As we returned to the animal shelter and I hooked a leash to the eager neck of another stray, I listened again to the familiar crash of “Dream House”: It’s like a dream / I want to dream…

This was in 2013, I should say. It was my last year of college. I’d been given a fellowship to interview survivors of the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake for my senior thesis. I hadn’t planned on animals, but as I’d compiled my itinerary for the trip—my first foray to Japan, a dream since childhood—I’d found a Facebook group for a no-kill shelter called Animal Friends Niigata. At the time it housed over two hundred animals, many of them orphans, their owners having abandoned them or died in the disaster. I’d like to say empathy alone led me to accept their eventual invitation, but they also promised free accommodations for foreign volunteers. So within the month I was on a bullet train for Maki-shi, in the prefecture of Niigata, the kind of lone hamlet that lives for high school baseball, where ramen shops and adult manga stores and the occasional fluorescent 7-Eleven interrupt the hunched apartment complexes until the thin streets flee the town and become the only barrier before vast echoes of crops. 

I was put to work as soon as I arrived. Isabella, the owner, assessed correctly that I was an anxiety-ridden student with tons of heart and zero experience, so for my weeklong stay I’d walk the dogs healthy enough to go out in the mornings and afternoons—about thirty each day. At first I was enraptured by the way their tails would wag mercilessly as I approached, but soon the monotony of lap after lap led me to seek company elsewhere. 

Sunbather was and remains my only serious visit to the world of metal. When I first heard it, months after a close friend recommended it, my reaction was the same as that of any rookie: okay, wow, this is loud. But it was what I needed at that moment. I’d arrived at the shelter at 7 a.m., so I used it as a caffeine surrogate. I listened again and again, sussing out the contours in the noise. The louder tracks erupt like a frantic murmuration of starlings, their melodies shifting suddenly on their breakneck trajectory, abundant echoes roaring behind, their manic operatics sometimes giving way to quieter moments. When I returned to Japan in 2014 I learned a word that I felt describes the interlude “Irresistible”: komorebi, or the sunlight that bleeds through trees. Over time, the album’s hourlong progression began to feel like a familiar cycle between longer flails of anger and brief inhalations of assurance. 

I began to feel a similar cycle at the shelter. At night I’d fantasize about, say, me asleep on a Boeing alongside ten or twenty of the adopted dogs, all of us en route back to my cramped apartment in Colonial Williamsburg. Then I’d wake up and strain against my inadequacy: my kindergarten-level Japanese, which had failed to help me when I got lost on my way from Tokyo to Maki-shi (Why yes, I love to swim); a cat allergy that meant I could only spend an hour or so washing their cages before a migraine burgeoned.Comparing my capacity for altruism to those around me didn’t help: the shelter was underfunded and Isabella hadn’t been able to pay her employees for over a month, yet there they were, day after day, buying me gloves when I needed them, assisting the animals in ways I never could. Each day at lunch and dinner I’d sit alone on a bench beside a vending machine jutting out of the mud like a rotten tooth and try not to wallow. I’d assure myself that I’d played my role. I’d brought those dogs the comfort of a daily rhythm. I’d think about the way they bounded down the road with such bright abandon and allow myself a dim flicker of pride. But then another day would occur, and the cycle would repeat. Back to track one.

It didn’t last long. I didn’t last long. I told Isabella I’d stay for a week and managed only four days. On my third night a blackout struck while my clothes were still in the washer. I hung my damp sweaters and jeans on makeshift ledges across the apartment and lay in bed listening to the thrum of the trains whose rickety passage made the bedroom windows shiver every hour. I knew I had to leave. The space behind my eyes felt scraped out. Three days of dog walks had caused my forearms to pulse red, like bells. I needed time for rest and self-repair. Fatigue had led me to the limits of my giving, and I’ve told myself again and again that that’s okay. 

“That’s more than fine,” Isabella replied the next day when I told her I’d be on a train to Tokyo that night. I asked if I could do anything the employees couldn’t, and she showed me the filthy portable kennels stacked in the alley behind the shelter. “It’s an eyesore, to be honest,” she said. “If you could clean up and clear some space it’d be a true benefit.”

“It’s 5 AM,”I sang along to Sunbather’s title track in the pale ache of this final morning, “and my heart flourishes at each passing moment.” I began to clean. I cleaned each kennel until the bleach bled through my latex gloves and left my skin raw. I washed away moss and rust and cicada shells and the corpse of a gecko. I poked my pinkie between the cages’ lattices to rub away every centimeter of grime. After each kennel was clean I separated the whole parts from the broken ones and placed them in separate piles in the garage. As I cleaned, as I made this space, I thought to myself: At least I can prepare this for you until you return to a proper home.  

— Jordan Sutlive
San Antonio, day 40

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