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Diane Gottlieb

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    I am a writer and educator with an MSW, MEd, and MFA in Creative Writing, whose essays, short fiction, reviews, and interviews have been published or are forthcoming in 2023 Best Microfiction, River Teeth, HuffPost, The Rumpus, Hippocampus among many others. I am the editor of Awakenings: Stories of Body & Consciousness (ELJ Editions Oct 2023) and the Fiction/Nonfiction editor of Emerge Literary Journal. I am currently querying my first novel.

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  1. It was at Shari Saltzman’s Bat-Mitzvah that I asked my husband if he was having an affair. While Shari and her family had carefully planned every last detail of her momentous event—from her flawless Torah reading in synagogue to the Gummy Bear toppings at the ice-cream sundae bar at the reception—I hadn’t planned a damn thing. Still, both Shari and I came of age that spring day. I’d been to plenty of coming-of-age celebrations that year. Between nieces and nephews and neighbors, it seemed every Jewish kid was turning thirteen. One party was pretty much like any other, though the Saturday night receptions promised a little more panache (for a lot more green). The Beaumont Yacht Club, where Shari’s hoopla took place, had the requisite spiral staircase, white marble with swirls of gray, a very grand ballroom which could seat upwards of three hundred, two glorious fountains—one flowing with semi-sweet, the other, milk chocolate and wide, bold, floor to ceiling windows facing the Long Island Sound. In other words, the Saltzmans splurged. Sometime around 7:30 p.m., Danny and I took our places at Table 7 just to the left of the ten-piece band. The tables were dressed for the evening in rose colored silk overlaying crisp white linen. Stemmed glassware glinted with water, cut crystal topped off with wine, and tulip-shaped flutes bubbled with champagne. Five other couples were seated with us—the men in their custom-tailored tuxedoes (black tie is always so much easier for men), the women in sleek spaghetti-strapped numbers, cocktail or floor length, with strappy thin-heeled pumps to match. We came ready to party, relishing any excuse to pretend we weren’t getting older, to forget we’d reached that sneaky turn in the road where the pressures and disappointments of life began to seriously mess with our heads. We were only in our mid-to-late thirties. There was still plenty of time to keep climbing the ladder, though not nearly as much as there once was, but the number of rungs seemed endless and that much further apart. Demands grew as our children did, along with truckloads of slippery resentments. And that age-old midlife question, “Is this all there is?” burned fiercely through our veins. “Let’s dance,” Danny said, right after the spring greens salad with endive and the band had begun its second set with Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit. Danny placed his hand at the small of my back, his cool touch more a habit than an expression of love or lust. Our bodies moved together like two old slippers, comfortable but worn. All as the band’s lead singer crooned his best Kurt Cobain. I had spent that morning in synagogue at Shari’s service with Jason, our ten-year-old. Danny stayed behind with Jenny, fourteen. At the Kiddush, after the blessings over the challah and the wine, several guests approached me. “Love the dress,” Shari’s aunt Sheila said, Nova lox heavy on her breath. I wasn’t wearing anything special, a simple navy slip-on thing and a floral shawl to cover my shoulders in the inevitability the air conditioner ran too cold. “Your hair! It’s fabulous! Just love the cut,” Rhonda, the neighborhood gossip squealed. She pulled me into an overzealous hug, during which her breasts pressed uncomfortably into mine. I quickly unlatched myself from her arms and reached up to touch my soft waves. “Thanks, Rhonda,” I said, wondering what else she noticed about me, what future fodder I’d unknowingly provided. I thought back to the morning, getting ready at the house. Me: standing in front of the bathroom mirror, working that subtle smudge of green liner I was famous for. (I had once worked behind a Lancôme counter at Bloomingdale’s.) Me: applying just a hint of lip gloss, my favorite new shade—Barely Nude. And Danny: saying absolutely nothing about how I looked. When was the last time he told me I was beautiful, pressed my breasts against him? I drove home from synagogue a woman possessed. It had felt good to be noticed at the Kiddush between bites of bagel, but what about some recognition at home? I was so over being discounted. Dismissed. Ignored. Take your pick. “Why do I hear ‘you look so good’ from everyone but you?” I came straight at Danny like a laser before even putting down my keys. “You never compliment me! You never …” “You’re right,” he interrupted, stopping me cold. You’re right. Odd music to my ears. When I heard those lovely notes, words that rarely left Danny’s lips, I stood taller, embraced my inner badass—in a Helen Reddy sort of way. I am woman hear me roar, I thought. And I thought about our after-Kiddush exchange at Shari’s reception that evening, as Danny and I stepped together on the Beaumont parquet dance floor, wingtips and stilettos moving in time to the Sister Sledge throwback “We Are Family.”
  2. 1.Story Statement: Deena Grossman must overcome a history of family betrayal in order to take agency in her life and find the happiness she’s always wanted. 2. Antagonist: Esther Nussbaum, aka Mom, thinks she has her daughter’s best interests at heart but her actions sabotage Deena at (almost) every turn. Because Mom believes families must remain intact—and that adultery is a normal occurrence in marriages—instead of taking Deena’s side, she appears to favor Danny, Deena’s adulterous husband, and she schemes with him to help him get back into Deena’s heart—and bed. After moving in, Mom creates further barriers to Deena’s goals by undermining her authority with Jason and Jenny, Deena's kids. Controlling, judgmental, and manipulative, Mom, however, is not all bad. Her softer side shows itself in heart-to-hearts with Deena, during which she shares her traumatic past and desire to “save the Grossmans.” A Holocaust survivor, whose parents made the heartbreaking decision to send her on a Kindertransport when she was eight years old and who later suffered horrific abuse at the hands of her caretakers, Mom has always felt the shadow of betrayal and abandonment. While she herself has betrayed others her whole adult life, Mom is now trying, with little success, to connect in more meaningful ways. 3. Breakout Titles: YOU OUGHTA KNOW DEENA GROSSMAN GROWS UP DEENA COMES OF AGE 4. Comparables: YOU OUGHTA KNOW has multi-generational coming-of-age themes similar to those in Emma Straub’s All Adults Here andis comparable in voice and humor to Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s Fleishman Is in Trouble. 5. Hook Line: 30-something, couples therapist Deena Grossman has worked her entire life to get away from her domineering, adulterous mother but has discovered she’s married her—in the form of a cheating husband—and must now overcome a long legacy of betrayal and forge a new independent life if she is ever to find the happiness she’s always wanted. 6.Sketch out the conditions for the inner conflict your protagonist will have. Why will they feel in turmoil? Conflicted? Anxious? Sketch out one scenario in the story wherein this would be the case--consider the trigger and the reaction. Deena, the protagonist, has just discovered that her husband Danny of fifteen years is having an affair--she asked him at a neighbor's daughter's bat-mitzvah and he said "yes." Inner conflict: Deena is struggling with shame. She is a couples therapist. How didn't she know her husband was having an affair? Deena worked all her life to get away from an adulterous mother. How to deal with the fact that she married her--in the form of a cheating husband? Deena is plagued by conflicting emotions. a) She wants to heal her relationship with Mom and needs to rely on Mom for help with the kids, yet Deena feels she can't trust Mom. b) Deena is furious at Danny yet still misses him and feels a need to protect him c) Deena still wants to be "taken care of" yet wants to (finally) find agency in her life. d) She wonders why she has never been "enough" (for her mother, for her husband) and what is it about her that makes her so easy to betray. e) Deena wants to find new love, but when Chris her "crush" (and her boxing coach) falls hard and fast for her, she feels she may have jumped in too quickly. f) Deena has never doubted her parenting skills but when she discovers that Jenny (her 14-yr-old daughter) has been "taking eating disorder lessons" from Kira (Jenny's new bff), her parenting is thrown into question and she must confront the intergenerations trauma and family secrets that just now begin to unfold. This excerpt from chapter two shows Deena’s inner conflict and turmoil: After going for a run with her best friend, delving into a book about marital affairs, turning to the TV, Deena looks to her jacuzzi to help her gain some perspective—or at least make it through the day. I took refuge in the master bathroom, my favorite room in the house. Paul, the contractor with the dreamy voice and fantasy hands, had a wonderful eye for color and design and instinctually knew what I liked. Go figure. Warm beige against rare brown sea glass, and at the center, under the large wide window facing the backyard, the deep, oversized jacuzzi, into which I loved to disappear. Maybe I should have invited Paul to disappear with me beside the hot, pulsing jets. Anyway … I slipped off my clothes and climbed in the empty jacuzzi, naked and cold. I turned on the water and placed my right wrist under the faucet to test the temperature, just as I’d tested the kids’ formula, back in the day, after heating up their bottles. Those were such delicious days, the sweet innocence of toddlers, the sweet innocence of starting a family. Even Danny was sweet, with the kids, with me. Our long walks through the neighborhood, Danny wheeling the double stroller. Danny reading Goodnight Moon to Jenny, telling stories to Jason about the stars. Danny snuggling with me under the blankets, his head on my now mushy belly. When did he lose that sweetness, that innocence? I watched the warm water stream across my wrist, the tub filling, slowly. I turned the knob towards hot, hungry for a slow burn. Mom. She loved baths too. Hot baths. I remember how she’d spend late afternoons immersed in a lavender soak, the scent drifting to her bedroom and into the hall. She’d dress after, in soft silk blouses, slim wool slacks. Dressing to go out “with a friend,” so many evenings, so many “friends,” all male, most of whom she must have slept with. I became transfixed on my blue-green veins, my purple capillaries, running lengthwise up my arm. Mom, stepping out. Leaving Dad and me behind. What would it feel like, I wondered, to take Danny’s straight edged razor and slice one of those capillaries, right through one tiny roadway carrying my blood? Mom. Now Danny. Stepping out. Dad. Dead. Must everyone leave me behind? A little sliver, a thin slit across the skin. Just enough to turn the water a lovely, muted shade of pink. I pulled my hand away and poured a large scoop of lavender bath salts into the tub instead. After taking in a few deep breaths of the familiar scent, I began to cry. You didn’t have to be a psychologist to know I was in trouble. Things were getting real. I needed professional help. Linda. Next, likewise sketch a scenario for the "secondary conflict" involving the social environment. Will this involve family? Friends? Associates? What is the nature of it? This excerpt from a chapter in the middle of the book shows lots of secondary conflict: Danny (Deena’s cheating husband), Mom (who’s recently moved in with Deena and the kids “to help”), and Jason (Deena and Danny’s son) all meet Chris (Deena’s new love interest): It was 8:00 a.m. on the dot, when the doorbell rang and bolted me awake. I hated being bolted awake. I jumped out of bed and put on a robe. “You okay to get the door, Deena?” Chris mumbled groggily. “Yeah. I mean, sure. I’m sure it’s all good.” Who was at the door at this hour on a Sunday? Maybe Mrs. Schwinger, the neighbor in the blue colonial next door? She could have seen Chris’s car in the driveway and wanted to check if I was okay. Was it Rhonda? Jason could have left something at her house. Maybe it was Susan, coming to beg for forgiveness for saying such rotten things about Jenny. I very much doubted that. I lifted the slat on the blinds and peered out the living room window. It wasn’t Schwinger. Or Rhonda. It wasn’t Susan. It was worse. Much worse. “Deena. Open up.” It was Danny with Jason in tow. “What are you doing here this early?” I gave him the death stare and then turned to Jason and put my hands on his shoulders. “Hi sweetie. You and Daddy not having a good time?” Danny answered for him. “We’re having a great time. Jason just wanted to stop by to grab a few things. And you should be thanking me—we’ve been up for two hours, but I made sure we waited until 8:00 to ring the bell.” Danny pointed to his watch, the new Patek Philippe Aquanaut. He was a poster child for conspicuous consumption. Danny took it all in: my wild hair, my bathrobe. When he lived here, I always slept in flannels. Today, no flannel pajamas peeked out from the bottom or past the thick terry sleeves. All he could see was bathrobe—and skin. He leaned forward a bit, no doubt to sniff me. His eyes hardened. “The car in the driveway, it’s blocking my spot.” “Jason, honey,” I said, “Why don’t you go upstairs for a few minutes? Say hi to the cats. They missed you.” Jason ran upstairs. “Whose Camaro is in the driveway, Deena? Whose fucking Camaro?” I tried to block his path as he walked towards the bedroom, but he went around me. Before he made it to the door, Chris came out, in gym shorts, no shirt, just his smooth chest (I wondered if he waxed it), the perfect backdrop for his muscles, his gorgeous, boxer muscles. “Woah.” Danny just stood there, in his pastel blue Polo, his crisp, creaseless khakis, his butter leather loafers, sans socks. Danny, 5’10, a trim 155lbs, facing off against a solid, buff, half-naked Chris. “Who are you?” Danny asked, the veins in his neck beginning to bulge. “Name’s Chris,” Chris said, reaching out for a handshake. Danny didn’t reciprocate. Chris let his hand fall back to his side. “Chris, huh?” Danny took a breath. “So you’re the that’s guy fucking my wife?” “Danny!” “It’s okay, Deena,” Chris said, holding me with his eyes. He turned to Danny. The smile gone, but the cordiality still in his voice. “I suppose you could say that. But I wouldn’t.” “You wouldn’t, huh? You were just in bed with my wife. Why the fuck wouldn’t you say it?” “Because it’s rude. And disrespectful.” “Rude! Dis-re-spect-ful,” Danny turned to me. “Is this guy for real?” He turned back to Chris. “Well, I think fucking my wife is rude and disrespectful.” You could hear the agitation in Danny’s voice, see it in the tightness of his jaw, the clenching of his fists. Chris, on the other hand, remained cool and calm, but there was no way he was going to put up with any of Danny’s shit. “And by the way, Dan, I’m not too sure Deena thinks of herself as your wife anymore.” Where was he getting that from? And who gave him permission to speak for me? A burning red creeped up Danny’s neck into face, just like the red that runs through my body when I’m angry or embarrassed. He turned to me. “So you’re actually fucking this beefcake? You must be really proud of yourself, Deena.” I looked at Danny standing there, helpless, trying his best to appear tough, even though he knew he was totally outmatched. He had just struck out at me. Still, my heart sank for him—just a little. “What are you doing, Deena? What is this man doing sleeping in my bed?” I felt like I was living a testosterone version of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears.” “Your bed? Your bed?” I started to laugh. Then cry. And then I heard a car door slam. A loud “thank you, sir,” in a singular voice that could only be Mom’s. Danny had left the front door open, so Mom walked right in, in a navy Perry Ellis pantsuit and a silk mauve blouse underneath. “All those cars in the driveway! Did we have a slumber party last night?” There was a happy lilt in her voice. Until she saw me with my hair wild, in a bathrobe, standing beside Chris, who was shirtless, in gym shorts, both of us facing Danny, the favorite-son-she-never-had Danny, his back to her. She dropped her Fendi bag. “Bad time?” “Chris, meet Esther Nussbaum, my mom.” Chris walked over quickly, extending his hand, which, unlike Danny, Mom was happy accept. “It’s a pleasure, Mrs. Nussbaum,” Chris said. “I’ve heard a lot about you.” “Hmm.” I swear she started batting her eyelashes. “Not sure that’s a good thing,” adding a soft, helpless pout. “I’ve heard about you, too, Christian. And I must say,” she said as she looked him up and down, “Deena’s descriptions haven’t quite done you justice.” Before Chris could answer, Danny stepped in and opened his arms for a hug. “Esther! How’ve you been?” “Just wonderful, Danny! Even better now, seeing you!” Ugh. A wave of nausea crashed against the walls of my stomach. Those two. Still at it. I wanted to tell them to get a room. The whole scene felt like a boxing match. Danny and Mom in one corner. Chris and I in another. Each of us measuring our opponents, waiting for the bell to ring. “Ma? Can I come down now?” that was Jason, yelling from the top of the steps. Danny began to scream-whisper at me. “I don’t want Jason meeting him,” pointing, of course, at Chris. “I sacrifice each week, make sure Vanessa is nowhere around when I’m with Jason. I expect the same of you and … and whomever you’re sleeping with on any given day.” Whomever I’m sleeping with on any given day. Really, Danny? “Jason wouldn’t have met Chris—it’s Chris, by the way Danny, ‘whomever’ has a name—if you didn’t feel so free to barge in without calling. There’s a thing called boundaries, Danny. B-o-u-n-d-a-r-i-e-s.” (Thank God I spelled it right. Danny was a spelling and grammar guru.) “You’ve crossed big time boundaries today.” I leaned into Chris for support. He put his arm around me. Was he comforting me? Or claiming me? “Ma! Is Grandma here?” “I’m here, sweetie. Come down and say hi!” Mom was smiling—big and wide. She was absolutely loving this. “Let’s all get some … breakfast?” Mom raised her voice into a question mark, but there would be no doubt. There would be breakfast. “Jason, come help me make pancakes.” 7. Setting: Set in the affluent suburbs of Westchester County, New York in the decadent late 90s, where adulteries were as prevalent as Burberry trench coats, as well as all over the news (Bill Clinton, Hugh Grant, Frank Gifford, and a few years later, Arnold Schwarzenegger), YOU OUGHTA KNOW uses this cultural backdrop to examine the life and choices now presented to Deena Grossman. The upper-middle class and all its trappings are portrayed throughout the novel: Stately homes on wide, tree-lined streets, with well-manicured lawns; opulent parties; designer clothes. In the shadows of the novel lives the changing cultural/emotional landscape, as women of some means who had until then only given lip service to independence began to consider, by choice or necessity, the alternative to being taken care of by men, even as they had not yet begun to acknowledge their privilege. Suburban life of driving kids from one activity to the next amidst the competition and gossip of PTA moms, therapy and lunch appointments, house renovations, and shopping, shopping, shopping became quite old quite quickly. Underlying the opulence are scenes highlighting Holocaust trauma and its intergenerational impact, providing a stark contrast between the two life situations and a means to more deeply understand the conflict between Deena and Mom. How does one’s personal situation reflect the larger environment? How does one change with the times?
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