It's a Wonderful Lie

26 Truths About Life in Your Twenties


By Emily Franklin

Foreword by Alexandra Robbins

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The Bitch in the House meets Quarterlife Crisis in this sassy, smart, and honest collection, which includes 26 original essays about life as a 20-something female.

With essays titled “Homesick for the Place You’ve Never Been,” “A Letter to My Crappy One Bedroom,” “Breaking up (with Mastercard) is Hard to Do,” and “Hired, Fired, and What I Wore,” IT’S A WONDERFUL LIE takes a provocative look at what women are making of their 20-something selves.

Remarkable female writers, including Anna Maxted, Melissa Senate, and Beth Lisick, among others, share their experiences as they explore everything from their first jobs, loves, and losses, to the perils of uncontrolled debt and the pain of making new friends. Amusing, moving, and empowering, IT’S A WONDERFUL LIE is a must read for every woman in her 20s, and those who have learned, loved, and lived through them. At last, an anthology that considers what one should and should not expect from what she’s been led to believe are the best years of her life.



To Andie Avila; Faye Bender; everyone at Warner for help and enthusiasm; and to that wonderful, weird, crazy, demanding, lovely decade gone by—thank you.

A Letter to My Crappy One-Bedroom

By Jill Kargman

Dearest Apartment No. 5,

Some girls chart the chapters of their lives with jobs or guys or haircuts; I do it with real estate. You, No. 5, are inextricably linked to every memory I have from the mostly heinous four years we spent together, but in the end, you were the one that built me back up from lonely twenty-four-year-old whimpering kvetch subsumed with worries about The Future. I arrived scarred and feeble and left happy, relieved, and whole. But we both know it wasn't easy.

When we met, I was as maudlin as tattered Cosette in the Les Miz poster. You were way more charming than other shitboxes I'd seen on my Tasmanian Devil whirlwind tour of way too expensive hovels, but your exposed brick and dreamy location near Central Park didn't soothe my weary bones and battered emotions. I was from New York and had never thought anyone could be lonely there until the moment I signed your lease.

The Hot Israeli Movers came to pack me up from my downtown abode, a hipster gigantor luminous loft compared to you, my dark third floor-walkup. Let's face it, my sweet, you were definitely a downgrade. The movers found me tear-stained, sitting on a cardboard box, refugee-style.

"Breakup move?" one asked with a sympathetic look.

Whoa. ESP? "Mm-hmm." I sniffled, wiping a hot errant tear.

"Don't worry, honey, we do this all the time. You're gonna be just fine."

Then boom-chicka-boom porno music came on, and he banged me in the back of the Schlepper's truck. Just lying. Actually, I was beginning a long and heinous dry spell sans saucisson.

I realized this when my sitcom-style reverie of hot-neighbor sexual tension was dashed instantly: of the ten apartments, eight were occupied by single women. Of the remaining two tenants, one was a family with three kids (did I mention all the apartments were one-bedrooms?), and the other was a buzzer that read "Erlichman." I held out hope for an NJB (Nice Jewish Boy), but Erlichman turned out to be an AARP card carrier who told me his rent control had him paying $300 a month, compared to my nightmarish monthly ka-ching that was over six times that. "The landlord would love to see me go, but I got news for him," he told me in the staircase, which was adorned with pheasant-covered wallpaper. "They'll be taking me outta here in my coffin." Good times!

Then the gal directly upstairs moved out (got married, migrated to the 'burbs), and in came cocaine-snorting, Moby--blaring Michelle, the town bicycle—and I mean every guy in New York had a ride. I didn't know which was worse, the song "Body Rock" playing on a loop, like seriously eleventy times in a row, or the humping and bumping from her iron bed. Most mornings a different guy would emerge, each looking like he should have the word "disease" stamped across his forehead. The big twist here? Cokehead ho worked on Wall Street and donned hose and lady suits every day, weird.

Meanwhile, for normal non-druggie moi, there was pas d'action in the sack for a while. While I loved being out of a high-rise and into your intimate cozier perch, the views of hand-holding couples squoze lemon juice on the wound of my singledom. The nights with you were very lonely, sitting on an explosion of Pottery Barn, listening not only to the symphony of bangage upstairs but also to my racing thoughts that stomped on top of one another, collage-like, inside my head. Would I die in this apartment alone? Would they carry my lifeless bod down the walk-up steps, like the dude upstairs? Would I grow so lonely that I, too, would drag grody suitors up for a role in the hay to get rid of the forming cobwebs in my vag? No, no, I have never been able to do that.

I would turn on my el cheapo crappy TV that was so small, I might as well have been watching the yuppie across the street's giant plasma flatscreen. Nothing I wanted to watch was ever on. That's when I learned that 4:00 A.M. is the loneliest hour. Why do they show so many upsetting movies in the middle of the night? I mean, nervous-breakdown central. I remember watching Jagged Edge and Single White Female alone, and somewhere around the time Jennifer Jason Leigh jammed her stiletto through the guy's eyeball socket into his brain and killed him, I thought, This might not be the cheeriest thing to watch in the middle of the night. I think deep down I wanted to take the plunge into my despair over my breakup and really feel the pain. And I did. I woke up with what Humbert Humbert called pavor nocturnus—complete and total, all-enveloping Night Panic. You know, heart pounding for no reason, cold sweats, racing brain, thoughts of spinsterhood.

There were two things that calmed me down: infomercials and Vanessa. And her sage advice and friendship, unlike Facersise® (get your face skinnier with a VHS tape and creams!), was free and enhanced my life, since we met loaded with textbooks our first day of freshman year in college. Vanessa is a tall blonde who is modelesque in looks and even smarter than she is drop-dead gorge. From midnight Chinese food Hoover-vac feasts to psycho-long walks to endless phonefests into the wee hours, she was like the sister/shrink I never had. I once saw a needlepoint pillow that said TRUE FRIENDS ARE THE ONES YOU CAN CALL AT 3:00 A.M., and we all know needlepoint pillows don't lie. During my loneliest, saddest pits of despair, I would cry to Vanessa that I wished I could have a time machine, Michael J. Fox–style (minus the being broken and needing weapons-grade plutonium part) so I could go back and be with my ex. I missed him, us, our life as a team. What the fuck crack pipe had I been smoking when I let him go?

Vanessa talked me down and reminded me that sometimes we can't remember why we do things. "Actions speak louder than words," she said. "There was a reason things fell apart, you have to trust yourself." She was right. I couldn't quite recall the little thread that had unraveled the relationship, but in that opaque sea of emotions, I was inexplicably paddling away for some time. My gut had told me that despite all the history, my future husband was not the man I was living with. But now what? How to find mystery non-metrosexual Lancelot? One thing I knew: It was time to pull my carcass off the couch and start over. Vanessa told me sternly, despite my Jack McCoy fantasies, that a guy wasn't going to fly through my window while I was watching Law & Order marathons. I had to take control of my life and not whimper. Then came the Dates from Hades. Pig heads, big heads, potheads, shitheads, all on freak parade.

There was a blind date who looked not unlike Danny DeVito. Another had hands that were all palm, you know, the size of Wonder bread slices, with short, stubby fingers like five pigs-in--blankets glued on. Then there was a cute but way too snobby writer who snapped at me that my fidgeting with the Equal packets on the table was "really aggravating." Another guy "would never set foot in Europe."

Finally, a dream date with a sexy hipster rock critic. We laughed all night in a little café in the pre-chic Lower East Side, and he said he'd had the best time and wanted to hang out the next evening. When I said I was busy, 'cause I had tickets to a Billy Joel concert, he asked if I was joking. I said no, and then a mysterious headache came on, and he said he had to go. I never heard from him again.

About a year later, after a couple of failed mini-relationships, I really hit the nadir. For some reason, all my best friends had boyfriends. I bitterly lamented the fact that I was utterly and completely alone. Except I wasn't. I had roommates. Small, furry gray roommates.

The shrieks began when a pavor nocturnus fit woke me. I had that inner battle of "do I deal with getting out of bed to pee or not?" I tried go back to sleep, but once I recognized my bladder, I eventually had to go. I was heading to the bathroom when I first saw a mouse/rat (they're both so gross, they're indistinguishable to me, but I believe the city has only rats, and the country has mice). It darted across your two-by-two kitchenette, which was not unlike the proportions of an airplane bathroom, and I thought I was going to pass out. I tripped and fell, scraping my knee on the Pottery Barn sisal, and didn't seem to care about the blood gushing out of my knee as much as the fact that I was living among rodentia.

I called your owner and freaked. Her cold response? "Welcome to New York, kid." I informed her I was from New York and never had four-legged squatters. She dispatched her exterminating company, Roachbusters, whose logo naturally was a Ghostbusters sign with a cockroach instead of Casper. Nice. Two weeks later, I could still hear them scampering. I called your owner again, saying perhaps if she had sent a company called Mousebusters, we wouldn't have this problem. Eventually, thanks to mousetraps, which I had the pleasure of hearing snap in the night, the problem was solved.

But more than anything, the mice forced me to make plans every single night. Gone were the dates with Orville Redenbacher and Time Warner cable; I had to leave to avoid other sightings. I made a voiced-out-loud pact with the mice that they could hang as long as I never saw or heard them and they shat under the sink.

So I started leaving you and going out. All the time. Vanessa and I were so inseparable on the junior benefit circuit, people thought we were lesbians. Or if I didn't have plans, I'd put on my earphones and walk for miles and miles, à la Forrest Gump, minus the beard and retardation. I started going to plays again, even by myself. One theatrical plunge was so therapeutic, it began to take over my life. You must have wanted to shoot me for blaring Hedwig and the Angry Inch every second for a year. My friend Trip and I went to see the amazing musical in the West Village, and when we came out, I was singing the songs at the top of my lungs down Jane Street. He stopped and looked in my eyes. "You're back," he said. "We lost you there for a little while, but now you're back." I burst into happy tears because deep down, I knew he was right. That was the reason Vanessa had spoken of: I hadn't been fully myself in my previous relationship, and I was at last returning to my kooky uncensored side.

As winter thawed, I left you more and more; those long walks I was taking became longer walks—to Wall Street and back to Seventy-sixth, even round-trips to Brooklyn. So I thought I'd walk the New York Marathon, why the hell not. Seeing as how I am the worst athlete ever to roam this earth (think JV volleyball, benchwarmer), it was a true miracle that I finished it. I think it was some crazy challenge for myself that I knew I'd never do again, but I had to do it once just to prove after nights and nights of lonely walks that I could actually leave you and go into the world. All five boroughs, to be exact.

My cute parents were freezing at the finish line, waiting for me, complete with GO, JILL, GO! signage, not realizing I'd finished way earlier than planned. I staggered home alone in my silver cape-thingy and, of course, my medal. I remember walking in and looking around your space. I was exhausted and could barely haul my ass to the shower, but I felt so proud: Despite the fact that my body was near collapse, my head was strong.

A few months later, I went on a blind date with a guy named Harry whom my grandma Ruth fixed me up with—the grandson of her friend Betty. My first thought was one word: Oy. Just what I needed, a dweeb who is such a power-nerd, he needs his nana for a fix-up with an NJG. But my life was so shtetl, because sure enough, it was practically love at first sight for me. He was a beyond adorable, scruffy nugget in his Harvard Ski Team pants (double-whammy hotness factor of brains and balls), and after dinner, we walked and talked and venue-hopped for hours. At four A.M., he put me in a cab and gave me a kiss on the cheek, asking if we could have dinner again two nights later. Natch, I said yes, beaming and giddy.

Unlike many nights coming home to you, tonight had elated me. There had been so many evenings of dashed hopes after a supposedly fun party where I was in the back of the cab, hanging it up for the night, my only fun to be with Saturday Night Live upon my return.

But this time, as I put my key in your door, I heard the phone ringing. Huh? I ran up the stairs. The clock read 4:17 as I picked up. "I just wanted to make sure you got home safe," Harry said.

The next morning, at my Sex and the City–style recon brunch with Vanessa, I told her I had met my husband. It turned out I was right. Twenty months later, we were married, and it was your threshold he carried me over when we returned from our honey-moon. Being in love made your ceiling's peeling paint less of an eyesore, the cacophony of the neighbors more muted, and the gray critters less scary. Suddenly, you were a palace—well, maybe not quite a palace, but my rose-tinted glasses transformed you from lonely bachelorette pad to love nest, filled with smells of cooking for two instead of microwave-popcorn-as-dinner in sweatpants.

Apartment No. 5, sometimes I think that if only I'd had a crystal ball, I would have enjoyed our time together much more. If I had known I'd fall in love and be settled with work and be happy, I could have relished those years and not stressed so much. But knowing the future would have ruined it, because it was my hard times with you that got me to where I needed to be. It was in the four walls of your living room where I pep-talked myself back from the downer days. It was in your bedroom where I chatted with my best friends. Sure, I was lonely, but that time alone helped solidify what I wanted and who I really was. In the end, the fairy-tale ending was not because of Harry—he didn't save me—it was because of you. You helped me get independent, you returned me to my old self, and you delivered me to Harry when I was ready. And that is why, despite my nightmare neighbors and cheesy pheasant hallway wallpaper and mice and Moby and assoholic landlords, I am so happy we met. I don't miss you, but I will always love you.

Girls Can Do Anything!

By Leanne Shear and Tracey Toomey

Starting when we were about five years old, both of our mothers posted similar signs that exclaimed GIRLS CAN DO ANYTHING! We each took the sign quite literally, and at any given point in our young lives, whenever anyone asked us what we wanted to be when we grew up, we'd answer decisively, "A doctor," "A teacher," or "An astronaut!" Funny, the one occupation neither of us ever blurted out was "A bartender!"

Seventeen years later, we both stood proudly at attention, dressed in cap and gown, on the stages of our prestigious universities. Tracey was set to shoot her big scene in A Beautiful Mind, which went on to win an Academy Award. Leanne was about to begin a high-powered consulting career at Sterling Group in New York City. We'd each put down security deposits on a sixth-floor walk-up apartment in the East Village, hit IKEA, and started making payments on our student loans. Our mothers were right—we girls could "do anything." Neither of us could wait to dive into the future.

Little did we know that under a year later, we'd be drowning together in a sea of soiled bar rags, discarded beer bottles, and abusive customers. Our seemingly ideal post-college occupations quickly dissolved in reality. It turned out that getting lead roles in Ron Howard films and moonlighting in Tony Award–winning Broadway shows was challenging, indeed. Pounding the pavement en route to auditions every day was exhausting, and the rejection could get unbearable. Statistically, the average working actor in New York books only one job out of every fifty auditions. Tracey's plan of getting signed by a high-powered agent immediately after graduation, touring the film festival circuit with her latest brilliant film, and being on Letterman before her twenty-third birthday seemed a little improbable. For that matter, becoming the first twenty-three-year-old executive vice president of a leading consulting firm wasn't a piece of cake; not that this was even what Leanne had dreamed of. The job at Sterling was, for her, a one-way ticket to New York City, where she could get settled, make a few bucks, and one day break into Pulitzer Prize–winning journalism for The New Yorker. However, she found it all too easy to get mired in office politics in her "cushy" job.

Tracey's character on All My Children got written off the show, and without "Nurse Linda's" salary, she couldn't make ends meet. Meanwhile, Leanne made the switch from corporate America to a "career" in freelance gossip-magazine writing. We both needed fast cash, not to mention a little bit less stress (even a little fun), in our professional lives.

Onieal's Grand Street, a former speakeasy in SoHo with a dark mahogany carved ceiling and long, burnished bar top, provided the perfect backdrop for our introduction. Leanne had gotten the bartending job at Onieal's through a friend at Penn, and Tracey scored the same gig a couple of months later, after meeting the owner at another bar. Our first night together behind the bar, while we were sweating through the demands of two hundred Red Bull–amped Wall Street execs, we happened to look up from the sour-apple martinis we were churning out, to notice that we had the exact same hip-shaking move to Bryan Adams's "Summer of '69." A best friendship and bartending partnership was born.

One night (actually, one early morning), after we'd dragged four enormous fly-covered trash bags to the curb, we settled onto stools at the deserted bar and opened up a bottle of Rex Hill pinot noir as part of our post-work, wind-down ritual. We started rehashing the night's war stories.

"Can you believe that girl who fell down the stairs?"

We'd both laughed when the perfectly coiffed, petite blonde who'd apparently had one too many Jolly Rancher shots pulled herself off the sticky floor and slurred threateningly, "I'll sue you!" before stumbling out the door.

"What about the country-line-dance guy? That was hysterical."

In a sea of white and blue button-down shirts, a lone redhead in a loud plaid flannel had tried to corral the entire crowd to line-dance to hip-hop. "Come on, y'all," he'd twanged, "I got ninety-nine problems, but a bitch ain't one!"

Before we knew it, the seeds of a book were taking hold.

Our schedule involved bartending together five nights a week until five A.M., then meeting bleary-eyed at Starbucks a few hours later to work on our manuscript. We went from shots of whiskey to shots of espresso without missing a beat.

While researching our novel, we came across an interesting piece of information: The first-ever female bartenders were actually prostitutes in German beer houses. They served not only pints to patrons, but a hell of a lot more if the price was right. During the time we worked on the first draft of the manuscript, we found ourselves dealing with customers who made remarks like "Nice rack" or "I love it when you bend over to get my Corona, sweetheart." More often than not, these customers assumed we didn't have an ounce of intelligence or drive in our "pretty little heads"; they asked us condescending questions like "Did you finish high school, honey?" As bartenders, we were viewed as objects, programmed to smile blankly and robotically turn out cocktails. We needed the money to pay the bills, but at times we felt like we were compromising our character. Girls could still "do anything," including supporting themselves by bartending, but they had to be prepared for how they would feel after some guy casually inquired, "So, what kind of a tip do I have to give you to get you to come home with me tonight?"

Too many nights ended with laments as we wiped down the bar. "I hate when that guy John comes in here," Tracey would say. "He always makes me feel so uncomfortable."

"I know," Leanne would agree. "Every time he comes in, I put on my sweatshirt because he's always staring at my chest."

"I'm so tired of getting hit on by old, gross men who think they're allowed to say whatever they want to us because they think we're just idiot bartenders."

We weren't the only ones who were uncomfortable with our new roles. When we first announced to our mothers that we'd abandoned a traditional career path in favor of slinging drinks, their distress was palpable. Of course they worried about our safety and lack of health insurance. But as it turned out, their concern was motivated by something even deeper. They felt that their generation of women had made so much progress toward sexual equality, paving the way for us to be the first group of women to have every career opportunity imaginable available. Neither of our mothers was a bra burner, but they had both taken part in the movement. If they'd made sacrifices to stand up for feminist ideals, why were their daughters choosing to bartend and willingly put themselves in a position where they were objectified? The irony was impossible to ignore. We were told girls could "do anything" by mothers who had lobbied for equality of opportunity. Little did we know that there were limitations on "anything." It certainly didn't include bartending.

Friends and acquaintances were also surprised by our decision. Whenever people we knew from college happened to come into the bar, we were plagued by shame and struggled to keep the awkwardness in check. Our investment-banker friends came into Onieal's dressed in starched shirts and conservative suits, while we wore beer-soaked, skimpy halter tops and perilously short miniskirts. An acquaintance from Leanne's alma mater booked her birthday party at Onieal's and filled the bar with her usual coterie of perfectly pressed, flawlessly manicured acolytes. When she arrived, she simpered up to the bar and ordered a glass of Veuve Clicquot. She did a double take when she recognized Leanne, exclaiming with a tinge of surprise and derision, "What are you doing back there?"

When a fellow actress from Tracey's conservatory (who at that moment happened to be starring in a major Broadway show and a popular ABC sitcom) popped into Onieal's for a cocktail, she remarked pityingly, "Don't worry, Tracey. Your time will come, honey. You won't be bartending forever."

Our college-friends-turned-Manhattan-roommates generally left for work as we were coming home from work. There's nothing like meeting your roommate—fresh from a post-gym shower—in the elevator when you're stinking like stale Jose Cuervo and have mascara oozing down your cheeks. "Rough night?" she'd ask, her tone modulating between sympathy and disgust. People who once knew us as excelling in literature classes, at cross-country meets, or in the theater now found us scrubbing glasses, frantically serving hordes of demanding customers, and fielding lewd pickup lines like "Is that a mirror in your pocket? Because I can definitely see myself in your pants."

So why did we choose to bartend? Aside from the obvious benefits—fast cash, a built-in social life, endless networking opportunities—being a bartender is one of the only professions without an arduous corporate ladder to climb. There are plenty of politics involved in securing plum shifts at a lucrative spot, but once you get the job, you make the same amount of money as the guy standing next to you who's been doing it for thirty years. Bartending is the ultimate in immediate gratification. And as products of the ADD generation—results-oriented versus process-oriented—we wondered why we would wait ten years to make money when we could do it instantly. Plus, bartending freed up our days so we could progress in our respective artistic endeavors.

On top of working together on our novel, Leanne was getting published in New York magazine, and Tracey was landing roles in successful independent films. In contrast, one friend of ours took the hierarchical route at one of the biggest talent agencies in Los Angeles and worked hundred-hour weeks answering phones and making photocopies for a high-powered agent who couldn't be bothered to so much as glance at the screenplay our friend was toiling away on. The assistant-level job didn't pay enough for gas to get back and forth from work; she wouldn't be promoted to junior agent for another five years; and to top it all off, her screenplay seemed doomed to forever collect dust in her desk drawer.

Meanwhile, we were spending our free time auditioning and submitting freelance articles, working on our book, and spending our surplus cash on new computers and new head shots. Bartending became infinitely more bearable once we had the novel to work on. The idea of writing a book based on our experiences behind the bar justified the job itself. Instead of just being a place where we'd exploit ourselves to make a quick buck, the bar was also where we conducted all our research.

However, we learned that bartending is a double-edged sword, and we often wondered if we'd made the right decision. There's no such thing as a promotion in the bar world, and the money quickly levels off. When we first started working together, we developed a following of loyal, big-tipping customers who came to the bar to see us in action. On any given night, we could walk away with upward of three hundred dollars, sometimes much more. But as we got deeper into our twenties, friends started ascending the rungs of the corporate and financial ladder, while our income remained constant. One close friend became the youngest vice president at Morgan Stanley and was a millionaire by age twenty-eight. In sharp juxtaposition, our idea of career advancement had become working at the hottest club in the Hamptons.

To compound it all, we found ourselves constantly battling against the stereotype of the female bartender. At low moments, we felt like those German prostitutes in filthy, crowded beer halls. We couldn't help but notice that our tips had a funny way of increasing exponentially as our necklines plunged (the bar world's only form of a "raise"). We were toeing a fine line between propriety and the need to make a decent living in a work environment where sexual harassment was practically in the job description. In the corporate world, while sexual dynamics certainly play a role, a woman is usually protected by anti–sexual harassment statutes. Can you imagine an arbitrator responding to a scantily clad bartender's gripes about a customer commenting on her body after she'd been doing shots and flirting with him all night? The bottom line is, if we didn't entertain a man's advances, we wouldn't get tipped. In our hand-to-mouth existence, every dollar counted, even the ones we felt shitty about working for. We incessantly grappled with the question "How much is this money worth?"

Harassment wasn't always as overt as inappropriate comments or touching. One regular customer purported to be a Hollywood producer who worked with the likes of Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks. Feeding on our vulnerability (and ambition), he enticed us both at different times with promises of movie roles and screenwriting credits. To an aspiring actress or writer laboring behind a bar, such promises are manna from heaven and cause for fierce hope. We found out later that he was a fraud. It was nearly a rite of passage at Onieal's to think you were going to be discovered through his next film.

Furthermore, going home with a patron from the bar created a loaded situation. After we'd been serving a guy all night long (an exchange of goods and services for cash), we couldn't help but feel that energy carry over into the intimacy—the beer-hall bartender/prostitute rearing her ugly head once more. The roles had been clearly delineated as server and client, and it was impossible to ignore the dynamic. We always felt we were pigeonholed as "the bartender," and all the stereotypes of the label haunted us. In the end, the paradigm precluded an authentic connection.


On Sale
Jan 3, 2007
Page Count
304 pages
5 Spot


Emily Franklin

About the Author

Emily Franklin is the author of The Girls’ Almanac and Liner Notes and numerous novels for young adults. She has edited three previous anthologies, including It’s a Wonderful Lie: 26 Truths About Life in Your Twenties.

Learn more about this author