As a 25th birthday present to myself, I've been tracking down books on eBay that I loved as a child. The packages arrive like gifts from a younger me: Baby Island, in which plucky tween babysitters become the guardians of four infants after a shipwreck; the Boxcar Children series, about a group of orphaned siblings who live together in Edenic harmony in an abandoned railcar.

What I loved so much about these books was the details of the domestic lives their heroines built in bizarre unsupervised circumstances: the way they made utensils out of wood scraps, cooled their milk under a waterfall, and picked fat cherries that they carried home for supper. I was moved by these acts of creating particular and lovely lives, made lovelier by their efficiency, their fullhearted improvisations on the stuff of the adult world. (If only grown-ups were smart enough to know that you could make perfectly fine beds out of pine needles!)

It's a happy strangeness, then, to reread these books in my own version of a boxcar. I am currently living in a 10-by-14-foot outbuilding in Brooklyn, an almost assuredly illegal structure in a friend's backyard. The idea to fix up this crumbling shed was once a sort of joke: It looked romantic, its exterior latticed with ivy, but the inside was overrun by squirrels, the roof patched with cardboard. Besides, I had a perfectly fine apartment—until my roommate decamped to Texas and the landlord hiked my rent. Then I started reading about shiplap siding and drywall. After a few months of construction confusion and endless trips to IKEA, I now have running water, spotty heat, a tiny kitchen and, alarmingly close to that kitchen, a toilet, doing its own thing in a corner.

When I want to shower, I have to cross the backyard to my friend's place, often in a towel and rain boots. I get the sense that my neighbors think I'm being kept out here in quarantine for some unsavory reason. But while my little shed tends to elicit confusion or pity—particularly from acquaintances with fiancés and dogs—often, too, there is a flash of wonder, of envy. I get to live in a kind of treehouse, a hideaway in the middle of this cultivated city. My friend and I use walkie-talkies to gossip between houses. I clamber up the stairs—I built them myself, watching YouTube videos for guidance—to my sleeping loft with trepidation outweighed by thrill. If living here requires extra effort, extra blankets in winter, that effort is rewarded by the feeling I have of getting away with something, the secret of my jewel-box life in the backyard.

In the books, there is always a moment when it ends: The rich grandfather swoops in; the island dwellers are miraculously rescued via a note in a tin can. The dreamy world is over; the heightened simulacrum draws to a close. I think of that sometimes, how one day I will want an actual bathroom door and something more substantial than a hot plate to cook on. And already I feel how much I will miss this place, and the person I am here. The nights I come home late, an impractical dress under my winter coat. The door of my shed open to the backyard on summer mornings, the radio on as I make eggs. The friends who come over to talk, picking at stale Valentine's candy and drinking tequila from small gold cups scavenged from a box left on the sidewalk. I try to hold on to these moments even as they are happening, already saddened by the presentiment of loss. Scraping candle wax off the small wooden table after a late dinner. A friend painting clumsy faux-wallpaper at 2 in the morning. How the skylight looks from my bed when it's sheeted with snow, the light gauzy and bright from the early sun, letting me know I won't have to get up for another hour yet.


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