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The thing I would miss, if I didn't go home, would be the ice-skating. The wild, friendly outdoor hockey games with my Montana cousins, who were little kids pushing child-size wooden chairs across the ice for balance when I was in high school, but who now skate circles around me, stripping the puck away anytime I get near it—that would be a real sacrifice. Everything else could pretty much go.

Or at least that's what I used to think every October, when it was time to book the flights on those bouncy small planes.

Two years ago, I opted out and flew to New York for a stripped-down Christmas with my boyfriend's family. His mother, brother, and sister usually go upstate with friends, but that year they were having dinner at home in the city. The trip had some of the appeal of my fantasy—no small planes, no presents, no parceling out time equally between my parents. And it would be glamorous Manhattan: people bustling around in boots and coats, under the holiday lights. There was always Rockefeller Plaza if I needed a skating fix.

Things started off well. We went to a cocktail party with writers and architects and an Irish poet I'd read in college. The hostess was English, and handed out sheet music for English carols no one knew; sight-reading around the piano, we all sang gamely anyway. We had drinks at my agent's apartment, and I was interviewed for a magazine story about my new novel. If I had been told, when I was 22 and wanting to be a writer, that I might someday have such a Christmas, I wouldn't have believed it.

My boyfriend had learned to knit in order to make his mother a scarf, but he'd run out of wool on the plane, midway through the last-minute matching hat. So we spent an afternoon wandering the city, looking for a matching skein. A woman in a shop gave us a tip on a knitting store a few blocks away. They couldn't match the yarn, but sent us to another narrow building, with a small room full of knitting supplies on an upper floor. Someone there suggested a third shop. It was like trying to buy drugs, except drugs must be easier to find. We never did track down the yarn, but it was lovely to walk around in the pale winter light without anywhere we had to be.

Christmas Eve, we went to Rockefeller Plaza but couldn't even see the ice; people were packed against the rail 20 deep. So many men were dressed as Santa Claus, it looked like he had hired decoys for protection. We searched for a carol service and failed; the midtown churches weren't going to waste their bumper crowds on kiddie songs. Still, there was snow in the air and the lights were pretty, and a million jolly people walked the streets.

Christmas Day, I went for a run in Central Park, where people wandered, walking off meals. Opening presents took no time: I got two books. The homemade scarf was a big hit, even without the hat.

It was everything I had wanted in a holiday, but I wanted everything else. When I called home to Montana, everyone was together, all my uncles and aunts and cousins. My brother was home, his first baby about to be born. They passed around the phone, and I could hear someone pounding noisily on the piano, and my sister singing. (She's my half sister, my father and stepmother's daughter, so her stocking gets to stay in one place.) I don't know what song it was—it seemed like multiple songs—but it was the death knell of my L.A. fantasy. It wasn't just that I missed my family. I missed all the attendant madness. My brother, who is two years younger, said, "I wish you'd been here to decide when to move from Mom's house to Dad's house. When you're not here, I don't know when to go."

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