Sugar Island

Issue #147
Spring 2021

Maggie and Joan took the two o’clock boat to Sugar Island. A man was supposed to show them his camelback sofa: green velvet upholstery, scrolled arms, feet like talons. Seven hundred. The ad said it dated back to 1908. This struck Maggie as disgusting—a hundred years of butts—but Joan loved old things, and she wanted to buy Maggie a sofa, somewhere they could sit together and read when Joan visited. Joan’s love language was gift-giving. Maggie’s was gift-receiving.


This was years back, when Maggie was still a phlebotomist. That’s how they met—Joan had suspected she was deficient in Vitamin D, and Maggie was the one who stuck her vein and sent away her blood. Some patients were difficult: Maggie had to stroke their hands, and ask them to make a fist, then make it again. Often, she had to tie rubber tubes around their arms. And then she stabbed them, sometimes more than once. But Joan wasn’t like that. She was easy—her cephalic vein was plump and bright, and Maggie stuck it on the first try. By the time she’d taped gauze in the crook of Joan’s elbow, Joan had asked her out.

It was convenient to sleep with a woman whose bodily fluids she’d already handled. It turned out to be much less convenient for Maggie once Joan moved to Ohio a few months before. They took turns making the 445-mile trip, and with each trip, it took Maggie longer and longer to get there. She would park at the rest stop in Ceylon, get a car wash, do a crossword. One time, she pulled off the turnpike to play eighteen holes of mini-golf. She could not identify the exact moment at which her love for Joan folded in on itself. But somewhere on the turnpike, while she was going the minimum speed in the rightmost lane, she found she could not make it sit up straight.

Joan was the most generous woman Maggie had ever loved. She’d given her everything: A down jacket, chicken dinners, potted plants. Supplements. Cocktails. A haircut in the bathroom, orgasms in the middle of the day. And now the promise of a couch. But more than any of that, Joan gave Maggie a sanctuary from herself. She’d supplied the certainty that someone safe waited on the other side of the ceiling—and, now, the interstate. It soothed a racket inside Maggie, knowing this.

Being in love with Joan wasn’t something Maggie wanted as much as it was something she let happen. Sometimes Maggie blamed the recession, or the election—who could expect her to be alone in these conditions? They kissed and then kept kissing, fucked and then kept fucking, and Maggie accepted everything Joan had to give. It was the perfect storm of loneliness and coincidence. Maggie did not have a knack, historically speaking, for objecting to the events of her life. She did not have a special talent for being alone.


Sugar Island had a population of 683. When they stepped off the ferry, Joan looked at her map and walked briskly in the middle of the street, ahead of Maggie. There was more land than houses, and the land looked hungry, a little desperate. There were no stop signs, but this didn’t seem to matter, because there were no cars to stop.

“Are you OK?” Joan asked, looking back. She asked this during every lull.

“Yeah,” Maggie said. “Fine.”

They arrived at a sloping driveway and walked down a gravel path, and there they were, at the house of the man with the sofa. The house was one story, the color of pale urine. Thick vertical blinds on the windows, a Buick parked out front.

The old man who opened the door had a face so gaunt his cheeks looked vacuum-sucked. His gray hair was combed and gelled. He was smiling as if he’d been waiting for them all day. Maggie considered how many miles they were from anyone else.

“You’re here for the camelback,” he said, and looked between them for confirmation. Joan nodded. “I’m Bagley,” he said, and stepped back to let them in.

Maggie blinked in the light and saw that the walls of his front room were filled with art.

“Please,” he told them, “have a look around.”

There was a portrait of a sad young girl holding a fat fish. There were landscapes of wreckage, farms painted from the sky, a cactus next to a telephone booth. There were houses in disrepair. Then there was the one Maggie would think of for years, long after she and Joan broke up: a small oil painting of a green bottle of Pert shampoo that had been squeezed so much it was crimped in the middle.

“No way,” Joan said. She squatted low before a painting of a dog smoking a cigarette. “Is this a Griffith?”

Bagley got a naughty look on his face. “It’s a Griffith.”

Joan squealed. “I love him,” she said. “He’s one of my favorites. Is this from his—”

“His Pet Peeves series, yes,” Bagley said.

“Oh, my god! I’m in awe!” Joan said.

Bagley offered them white wine or Coke or something called Rumchata. Joan said she’d love a white wine. Maggie wanted nothing. When Bagley returned with the wine, he took a seat in a high-backed chair and asked them what it is they do.

“I’m an artist,” Joan said. “A painter.”

“How wonderful,” Bagley said. “How perfect!”

“And I’m a phlebotomist,” Maggie said. “I draw people’s blood.”

“You’re an artist too, then,” he said. “She paints, you draw.”

At this, Joan laughs too much. “You’re right!” she said.

Maybe Joan was just being polite, Maggie told herself. But still, she felt her heart dip into envy. We will be here all day, she thought, Joan in rapture, carrying on with this strange man.

Bagley wanted to know about Joan’s work, so Joan pulled out her phone and sat next to him. Maggie watched as Joan thumbed the screen, and Bagley’s face changed again and again. “Oh, how lovely,” he said, and “Incredible,” and “It reminds me of Pachowsky, in the best possible way.”

Back then, Joan was using a lot of gold leaf. A few months before, the people at the Sandusky, Ohio, Merry-Go-Round Museum hired her to restore a herd of antique wooden carousel animals. Joan chiseled off inch-thick layers of old paint and epoxy, then applied fresh color and varnish. At first, Maggie found the animals creepy, garish, but she sensed Joan’s work was respected by other artists, and this inclined her to say she respected it too. The things Maggie knew about were crude—blood, plasma, veins. She was always mindful that her work was easily mastered, while what Joan had—talent, acclaim—seemed a result of magic and luck.

“You would not believe the money a grown man will pay for a painted pony,” Maggie said, but neither Joan nor Bagley seem to hear her.

The last time Maggie tried to end things, she practiced what she would say during the 445-mile drive to Sandusky. She’d decided to tell Joan the truth. “The trouble is,” she would say, “I don’t care what you have to say about anything at all.”

But when Maggie let herself into Joan’s apartment, Joan wasn’t there. Maggie ate a string cheese and lay on her mattress. After a while, she called Joan. Joan told her she was in the hospital. At work she’d dropped the body of a wooden elephant on her foot, and the doctors couldn’t reattach the severed portion of her second toe. She was waiting to get the wound sutured. “My god,” Maggie said, opening another digit of cheese.


At one point, Bagley placed his hand on Joan’s shoulder, and something petulant caught in Maggie’s throat. She stood up. “So, the couch,” she said. “You said seven hundred?”

He didn’t even glance at her. “I dabble in art too,” he told Joan. “I like to mess around with charcoal. Let me just—” he stood then and went off in search of something.

When he was gone, Joan whispered to Maggie, “Are you OK?”

Maggie could only shrug.

Bagley came back with a drawing and showed it to Joan first. “That’s my wife,” he said.

Joan looked and her eyes went dreamy, deep in some sort of feeling. “Gorgeous,” she said.

After a minute, Bagley sat down next to Maggie and showed her the sketch. It was a naked woman, legs splayed. Straight nose, shut eyes. Enormous breasts and bush. She was lying in some kind of meadow, surrounded by grass and lilies. He’d bungled the hands, but the other details were neat, proportional, exact.

Bagley looked at the picture again. “You really think it’s good?” he said to Joan.

“Yes,” she said. “You have quite the eye.” She smiled at him, then said, “I painted Maggie once,” and turned to look at her for confirmation.

Maggie nodded. “She did.” The morning after they first fucked, Maggie told herself it wouldn’t happen again. But then Joan knocked and wanted to show her something she’d made. “Come outside,” she said, and Maggie followed her to her fire escape, where Joan had attached a long tube of ripstop to a fan. The tube inflated and seemed to sway, like an air dancer, and Maggie saw that Joan had painted the tube to look like her. The ripstop woman was wearing the same striped shirt she’d worn the day before. Maggie watched her nylon self lean one way, then the other. Her arms swung wide, and when wind blew, she kinked at the waist and bent low, then stood up again. It was so startling, so moving, that even now, years on, Maggie’s pulse still quickens when she drives past a car dealership.

Bagley smiled, sensing unease. Then he set his drawing on the coffee table and looked at them. He said, “So. Let’s have a look at the camelback.”

Joan squeezed Maggie’s hand and Maggie pulled it free, put it in her pocket. They followed Bagley through the bright kitchen into his bedroom. The shag carpet was Kelly green, the four-poster bed dark oak, the walls papered in garish florals. And opposite the bed was the camelback.

“It’s lovely,” Joan said, and the springs made a sound when she sat.

“This baby is a real find,” Bagley said. “Perfect condition, save for a little stain here, on the other side of the cushion.” He lifted the fabric and showed them a small pen mark. “I’ve got a couple guys who’ll bring it over on the ferry,” he said. “No extra charge. White glove delivery. Great guys.”

“I live on the third floor,” Maggie said.

“That’s no problem!” Bagley said. “They’ll do as many flights as you got.”

“Come sit,” Joan said, and patted the seat next to her.

Maggie did. “Stiff,” she said.

“Firm,” Joan countered.

Bagley pointed to a scroll carved into a leg. “What I love most is all these beautiful details in the woodwork.”

Joan was thrilled about the scroll. “They don’t make them like this anymore,” she said, and Bagley nodded.

He said, “I’ll throw in a slipcover. And a matching pillow.”

“A slipcover,” Maggie scoffed.

“It’s for preserving it,” Joan said. She was trying to skim impatience from her voice, Maggie could tell. “What do you think?”

Maggie said, “I don’t know. It’s very ornate.” She thought of the stuff in her apartment: the bookshelf made of imitation wood, the single straight-backed chair, the mattress made of poly-foam that came rolled up in a box. She had to unroll it and let it rise, like dough. She has since menstruated all over it.

The couch would fit better in Joan’s apartment, where the furniture is expensive and attractive. Joan’s mattress cost eighteen hundred dollars. It was so luxurious that it had a woman’s name. The Layla. When Joan moved, Maggie helped her carry the Layla in and out of a truck and then backwards up her new stairs. This was the first time it was clear to her they would not last: they were stuck in the stairwell with one hundred pounds of foam and steel coils between them, and they could not find a way to make it around the corner.

Maggie considered her options. Accepting the couch, refusing the couch—every possible decision would give Joan the wrong idea. Maggie would feel cruel either way.

She knew it was past time to take an active interest in the events of her life. All day, she poked people’s arms and watched blood leave their bodies. These people were willing to endure a little pain. They were ready to get better. “Tell me,” they said to their doctors when the results came in. “What should I do? What is the way to mend myself?”

Maggie was not so brave.

Yes, OK, yes, let’s get the couch. Yes, I love the couch, Maggie said, and as Joan filled in the blanks of the check, she almost believed it herself.


“Do you want to walk forward or back?” Joan asked. The couch was a different color in the sun; the velvet shined and looked almost wet.

“Whatever,” Maggie said, so Joan took the front end. Opposite each other, they crouched in Bagley’s driveway, and Joan reminded Maggie to lift with her legs.

“You have to be my eyes,” Joan said, stepping backwards. “Tell me if I’m going to walk into something.”

The camelback was more cumbersome than heavy, and Maggie shifted her hands to accommodate the bulk. She’d insisted they take the couch today, rather than schedule a time with Bagley’s great guys.

“You got it?” Joan said when Maggie moved a hand under the front leg.

“I got it,” Maggie said.

They walked in time, each step agitating the couch. Past Joan, Maggie saw fields of rushes and creeping thistle. There was so much nothing. The street was flat and seemed deserted, but then Joan said, “Hello,” and a boy in big jeans pulled up next to them on a bike, no helmet. He nodded as he glided past them, and pedaled with lassitude, knees wide, aimless. The only sound was his bike chain slipping over the sprocket.


At the dock, they bought the camelback a one-way ticket.

The boat ramp was too narrow, and they had to hoist the couch onto their shoulders to clear the railing. Maggie was depleted. Her arms trembled and her tennis shoes slipped a bit with each step.

A man in a red vest coached them through it. “Keep going,” he called, when they were halfway up the ramp. “Keep going. A little farther. A little farther. A little—OK, stop,” he said, when Maggie let go of her end.

Panting, she bent at the waist and put her hands on her knees. “I just need a minute,” she said.

“Would you like some help?” the vest-man asked.

“No,” Maggie said. “I’m fine.” Then: “Yeah, OK. Sure.” She stepped aside and watched the man lift the back half with ease. He and Joan walked off—jauntily, it seemed to Maggie—and set the couch on the ferry deck. She could have done that, she thought. She wished she hadn’t given up so quickly.


The boat left Sugar Island with a lurch, and Joan put an arm around Maggie. Joan smelled like sweat and Bagley’s wine. They sat on the camelback, looking out over Lake Michigan, and it was nice, after hauling the couch, to be held by Joan. More than the material goods and the attention and the eye contact during sex, Maggie expected she would miss this the most: the way Joan clung, close as plum to pit.

She expected, too, that only she was capable of ending things. She fancied herself imperious. It was just a matter of time, she thought, until she had the gumption necessary to leave Joan. But she was still waiting for the gumption when, months later, Joan met Aimee. Aimee, who taught ESOL and who Maggie determined, from a series of searches online, had a septum piercing, and was impossibly pretty and fun.

After Joan left, Maggie became sick of venipuncture, of easily mastered work. She wanted more for herself. She spent thousands of dollars applying to medical school, and did not get into a single program. No magic, no luck for her. The rejections came swiftly, one after another, and she told no one, because no one knew she’d applied. The next year, when she was accepted to nursing school in Illinois, she decided to go.

In the years that have passed since the trip to Sugar Island, Maggie has moved in and out of seven different apartments and two small one-story homes. Each time, without remorse, she’s thrown away many things: pit-stained T-shirts, travel tubes of toothpaste, the orange and yellow Skittles in the bottom of a bag. Magazines read long ago, socks missing their mates. Birthday cards from aunts who’ve since died. It is like getting rid of evidence, she feels—evidence that she’s ever been anyone other than who she’s become.


After they break up, it pains Maggie to see the couch in her living room, where she and Joan set it down. “It’s perfect,” Joan had said, and then knelt and stuck small felt discs to each foot. It is this image that Maggie returns to: Joan in dirty sneakers, on her knees, holding half the couch aloft. Maggie hardly believes she’d wanted to leave a person like that.

After they break up, Maggie pushes the couch from one end of the room to the other. She makes it face the window, then the bookshelf, then the door, but decides to leave it where it was. Over time, the couch becomes common, ordinary, part of the background of her life. And when she is many years older, when she has become someone she can live with, she will come home from an overnight shift to find that her sweet, well-adjusted partner has unwittingly sold the camelback for twenty-six dollars in the neighborhood garage sale. “Do you know the name of the person who bought it?” Maggie will ask, trying to sound indifferent.