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Breaking Up in Public Is Hard to Do 

Enduring the heart-rending dissolution ceremony of writers M.I. Blue and Katy Bell

Wednesday, Sep 25 2002
M.I. BLUE and KATY BELL are pleased to announce their formal

Dumping of Each Other on Sunday, September 22nd at SPANGANGA

and you are invited to:


Bring your Ex-Lover!

Bring the love songs that make you cry!

Bring old Break-Up Notes and Poignant Love Letters to Read!

Bring decorated Candles, old photos and memorabilia to Help build

The Shrine of Kissed-off Lovers!

-- From Squid List event posting

Every Valentine's Day countless announcements of similar mien flood my inbox, like a swell of absurdist retribution for the Summer of Love. Only flirting with cynicism, Un-Valentine's Day parties are typically lighthearted, innocuous affairs that provide slight relief to the feme sole once inundated by Hallmark sensibilities; you might be invited to burn photographs, beat on a boy/girlfriend-shaped piñata, or get utterly crapulent, but no egos are bruised and no harm is done. Sadly, Valentine's Day doesn't fall in September. And while "Splitsville" promises a seemingly benign bout of "emotional mud wrestling," the reality is something more akin to a slow, tender psychic flaying. Sometimes, that is better than the alternative.

M.I. Blue and Katy Bell were introduced in the early 1990s at a reading series hosted by Blue and a band of literary provocateurs called the Pet Boys. Neither of the writers recalls the meeting with any particular fondness; still, they collaborated a bit before Bell moved away.

"He was a flirt and I wasn't open to it," says Bell.

"I wasn't particularly drawn to Katy," says Blue in a separate interview.

As most people come to learn, time and distance refine the texture of the human heart. Upon returning from New York City to start grad school, Bell came across Blue performing at the Tip Top on the heels of a spoken word tour and the success of his spoken word cabaret Wordfuck. In a spontaneous decision, they stepped up to the microphone together. Blue walked her home that night.

There were complexities from the beginning. According to Bell, Blue was seeing a number of women at the time, and six months after their relationship began, he went to London for a previously planned rendezvous. He called her after sleeping with a woman other than the one he'd intended to meet. He had had an epiphany.

"Ordinarily, I would react to that situation by pushing the person out," says Bell, recalling the conversation with some warmth, "but there was something about his coming to the realization while trying to be intimate with someone else. It was powerful."

Thus began a four-year relationship and a creative union, which quickly gave rise to such endeavors as DadaFest, a two-day-long extravaganza of artistic insensibility that is usually held at SomArts.

"We could do things together that we could never do alone," says Blue, his voice rough and careworn under the stress of their imminent breakup party. "Our differences used to frustrate me. Katy is more intuitive and visual, whereas I'm more literal. I like to know where things are going to go and how the audience might feel. Katy thinks about performance for its own sake. But after we butted heads and argued a lot, we achieved some sort of synthesis. Our connection was a dialectic."

According to Bell, the creative partnership was never in question.

"He never really wanted to be in the relationship," says Bell, taking a long, hard drag off of a cigarette, a habit she picked up again two weeks ago in spite of her job as a yoga instructor. "I convinced him. He wanted an open relationship."

"I think I always had doubts," says Blue, "but we were monogamous for four years. That's like eight years, kinda like dog years."

"I found out he went on a date in May," says Bell. "We tried. We went to therapy. We worked really hard, but it became too much for me. It's like the inversion principle: He pushes, I pull. Now, it's the other way around."

"I remember, one night, finding this late-night Thai place," says Blue. "It was incredible. It wasn't the place itself, it was just the realization that I would have never ever found it without her."

"We used to love going to Reno," says Bell. "He taught me to play blackjack. I was so nervous placing my first bet my hand trembled."

"Right now, it's the trivial routines I miss," whispers Blue. "Sleeping next to her, going to Trader Joe's to buy Shredded Spoonfuls. I don't have anyone to play cribbage or dominoes with, and that is really tough."

"We were compatible housemates," sighs Bell. "Really compatible. I'm going to miss living with him. He's my family."

"Things I won't miss," continues Bell. "He doesn't hear very well so if you say, 'I'm going to the store,' he says, 'You're going to ride a horse?' Ten times a day, every day, for years. And he laughs when I cry. He can't help it. His lip quivers when he tries to hold it back."

I wonder at Bell and Blue's decision to make their pain public.

As "Splitsville" approaches, I learn that my younger brother's girlfriend of four years has taken her life rather than face their final separation. My brother's is not the first love I have seen end in such a way, but he is 10 years my junior. In weeping for his loss, I begin to see the wisdom in Bell and Blue's open catharsis, and I am not surprised when Bell reports near-strangers stopping her in the grocery store to share their own rending tales.

The significance of "Splitsville" begins to take form. People want to contribute. Lindsay Ferlin wants to make a documentary. After more than two years, I want a reconciliation.

On the gallery wall of Spanganga, a shrine to Bell and Blue's relationship -- photos, postcards, letters -- is augmented by other mementos from guests: a wedding license, divorce papers, snapshots, the words "14 years. What went wrong?" A table by the doorway is strewn with name tags describing a state of mind or a parting sin: Drunken Bastard, Beaten, Liar, Cheat, Suicidal, Pathetic, Cat Stays With Me, Desperation, Looking for Apartment, Calling My Lawyer, Broken, Drug Addict. A real lawyer with a morbid sense of humor arrives with restraining orders. "Even if you're dating someone, fill it out now," he says before popping a bottle of champagne. A kissing booth is provided for solace and a fake-black-eye booth for comic relief. Breaking-up music plays over the PA. Blue crouches near the floor with the word "Pain" scrawled across his overalls, making final adjustments to a light.

"I feel like an anatomic dummy," he says with feverish eyes that come without sleep. "Like all my nerves are exposed. Like my mouth is peeled back in a permanent grin. I don't want to numb out. I want to be present, but this feels really dangerous. And I feel crazy."

Bell walks by in a pink corset and a long white skirt that has a giant dance card printed across her rear end with a growing list of signatures. She wants a cigarette and a Coke. My ex's dog walks up to me wearing a name tag that says "The Only Loyal One."

Blue and Bell take the stage, trembling slightly in the spotlight. They begin to read. E-mails spanning their relationship. The early, lusty ones filled with sore, red thighs and come in the hair; the middling ones, filled with jokes and dreams and admissions like "I love you -- trust it"; and the other ones, where tragic vulnerability gives way to businesslike formality. Bell and Blue's language is unique and evocative, like their poems, but palpably private and quotably funny. There are tears on the stage and in the crowd, sometimes quiet moans. My ex lasts no longer than five e-mails before he heads for the door.

Members from the audience are invited onstage to read, and make use of the paper shredder. A woman calling herself "Pathos" shares one of more than 40 letters culled from a two-month-long relationship; another woman tells of her first love, the two-year courtship before they had sex, the wonder and beauty of it, the odd way he didn't look her in the eye for four years while they attended the same college, and his unexpected apology on the last night she ever saw him; people offer poetry and songs. Blue and Bell "re-enact" their final breakup scene: Bell stands on her head with her skirt falling over her face and Blue pulls a giant cloth Valentine out of her vagina that says "It's Over." Blue draws a scalpel across his heart five times while Bell holds her breath, frowning, then he binds Bell's head and torso in saran wrap as she describes feeling smothered by him. They take questions from the audience, sharing the most painful things they've said to each other, their oversights and wrongs. During their dissolution ceremony, when the Rev. Hal Robins asks those who contest the breakup to speak now or forever hold their peace, the crowd roars, but it is done anyway. Blue and Bell are instructed to kiss anyone but each other.

The reception following the ceremony is a feast of comedy, music, and performance art, but I don't see any of it. Instead, I slip into a pitch-black storage room with a cell phone to engage in the conversation that should have been started years ago.

"The night was totally cathartic," says Blue. "Magical. Amazing. But it didn't take it away."

I agree. Thankfully, there's time.

About The Author

Silke Tudor


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