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The kids chased each other around the coffee table in the living room while I helped carry food from the kitchen to the dining room. This is how it’s supposed to be, I thought. Sure, there’s the long weekend, the binging, the warm fuzzies generated by the promise of cold weather and hot cocoa, and the whole gratitude thing; but Thanksgiving, I knew, was all about family.

Because we’d always traveled back East to spend the holiday with my in-laws, this was the first Thanksgiving I’d spent with my family since I’d started dating David six years earlier. It was also the first time as an adult that I could remember not itching to leave as soon as the pie had been served.

Though I’d moved out of my parents’ house when I turned 18, the full weight of adulthood didn’t hit me until I turned 21. That was the year my parents split up. Like a supernova, our family’s core collapsed and then exploded, and I was but one of the scattered fragments. Heather had just married Sean four months earlier; they lived as newlyweds in Mission Hills. Jane moved into a place in City Heights with her future husband, Simon. Jenny had just moved into a dorm at her college near Compton. I lived in a one-bedroom apartment in North Park. Mom stayed in the house, the family’s hub in Chula Vista. And Dad had chosen — as the first place he’d ever lived alone — a monastic studio apartment in Point Loma. We were, each of us, for the first time, spinning off into our own orbits.

While adrift out there in the blackness, I gravitated closer to my friends. It’s trite but true — friends are the family we choose for ourselves, and I was in the market for one. Thanksgiving wasn’t the only event to happen on a Thursday — that was also the one night of the week that Club Hedonism packed the rooms at Rich’s in Hillcrest. The year I turned 21, I traded in my fake ID for my real license and looked forward to skipping out on what was certain to be an awkward and fractured family holiday to attend a cohesive celebration with my new family of friends.

Emotions ran high that Turkey Day — my father had only announced his intention to move out two weeks prior to the feast of gratitude. It was understood and accepted that Dad would not be in attendance and that Jane and Simon were leaving early to spend the second half of the day with Simon’s family in Coronado. Those of us who were left didn’t quite know how to be.

The transition from childhood to adulthood can take years. Post–high school, pre-career, my sisters and I were all in that awkward in-between stage; we found it difficult to let go of our established familial labels because we weren’t yet sure how to define ourselves, or each other. I compensated for my inability to find a groove at my mother’s house by inventing a new identity for myself at the club.

After eating enough to fill me up but not to make me pass out (as I was wont to do as a teen on Thanksgiving), I made my exit from my mother’s house. On the drive back to my apartment, I tried to let go of all the tension and uneasiness. Once home, my frown vanished as I applied black eyeliner, red lipstick, and a showgirl’s share of glitter to my face.

At the club, properly dosed with my preferred mix of illegal chemicals for maximum enjoyment, I was welcomed with open arms. This family was consistent; there was no confusion over which role to play, that of rebellious daughter or estranged sister. The rules were simple, and everyone abided by them — have fun or die trying. DJ Jon Bishop kept us on the dance floor, where glow sticks left trails like comets in the dark. Thoughts of my disintegrating home life were replaced by images of rainbows and sparkles; I smiled in ecstasy as I basked in gratitude for being accepted into this dazzling clan.

I thought I could dance forever in my altered state, away from the reality of ruptured families and the ugliness of dawn, the sun having stolen away the magic of the night. But time is a wondrous salve, soothing and healing the sting of old wounds. After a handful of years during which we remained in our own private bubbles, the birth of my nephew — my parents’ first grandchild — seemed to flip a cosmic switch, reversing the gravitational forces on the family from push to pull.

With four children between them, Jane and Heather were drawn back into the familial fold and bonded tighter than before. My parents, though not living together, were on friendly terms, and Dad was welcome and often present for birthday parties, holidays, or any family gathering. It was a delight to see them all together, gathering round the roasted turkey Sean had placed on the table, along with the ultimate family I have chosen for myself, which is David. As we sat to begin our ritual of going around the table and announcing that for which we are grateful, it occurred to me that we were each not just a part of the whole, but also individual and fully realized shining stars.

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