When the women came looking for Robert in February, on the evening of our house's Valentines' Screw You and Your Politics party, we were surprised. Not that someone had come looking for Robert, or that someone had finally decided to deal with this problem which clearly needed to be dealt with, rather than simply talked about and debated over coffee and cigarettes. We were just shocked that it was actually happening. That Rachel was there, standing on our front porch in her parka and ugly brown cords. Taking initiative.
Shifting the knapsack that was always on her back, Rachel moved a Halls candy to the corner of her cheek, releasing a small puff of menthol into the air. She said, “I’m here to ask your permission to hold a mediation in your house.”
Mediation. We thought that was funny. Someone thought she said, “Meditation.”
“Hey, it’s a party man, not a yoga class,” that person said.
And we were all laughing at this.
Really, this whole thing started some time around November. Which is to say, it was about that time that people started accusing Robert of things.
And we started hearing about it. Mostly in The Hangup, the student eatery and coffee house, at our table at the back by where the piano used to be when there was a piano there.
There was Sarah whose home and clothing reflected her love of dogs (despite not having one because her apartment was too small), who said Robert played with her bra strap one night while hugging her goodbye. She said she felt his fingers pressing into her back, like someone doing Shiatsu or pushing a button Stephanie, who had the dubious distinction of being the only person we knew and talked to who also had a tattoo of a maple leaf on her left shoulder (she'd had a track and field career in high school), who told us about the time Robert came over to her house to show her how to make his famous spicy spring rolls, and brought a bottle of vodka (not included in the ingredients). She said he started asking her all these questions about her first time and drinking huge glasses of vodka and cranberry. She said he made lurid gestures with a crimped “o” of a red pepper, licking the inside rim with his chubby tongue. Stephanie said it was really embarrassing. Joanne from our post-modern thought class said Robert had a habit of circling her house on his bike, which she only noticed when she was out smoking cigars with her roommates on the porch. Once, she told us, between inhalations of nachos and cold cheese at The Hangup, he knocked on her door and asked her if she wanted to go out for a beer. Joanne said she told him she already had plans but she didn’t think Robert believed her. She did, she insisted, really have plans to go and meet some friends at Dukes. Joanne said it was really hard to get Robert off the porch—he’d kept a hand on the door so she couldn’t shut it, and chuckled when he saw her move to pull it closed. She said he kept talking for ten or so minutes, about how depressed he was, about how Montreal, in general was depressing, especially his basement apartment which didn’t get any light. At one point, Joanne noted, wincing slightly, he dropped his head down into her chest like a weary Bassett hound looking for an ear scratch. Joanne said she wasn’t wearing a bra, and she could feel her hot breath on her… you know…on her breasts.
Or maybe she didn’t say that.
Maybe we said it.
She might have said “chest.”
She did say she finally had to pretend that she’d left something on the stove so that Robert would let her go.
The funny thing was that all Robert’s accusers were oddly similar: The kind of girls you could imagine playing nice, outdoorsy types on TV sitcoms. The kind of girls who used crystals or baby deodorant, depending on their level of environmental commitment. The kind of girls who played at least one sport, though not terribly well, or jogged, though not religiously. They were all kind of skinny, all dark blonde as opposed to platinum or dirty blonde. They had a kind of apologetic air to them, like they wouldn’t interrupt you in a conversation. They approached us, our group, in the dimly lit alley, hesitatingly, delivering their news like a dinner they had made but not with any huge amount of effort. Kraft Diner, re-heated Spaghetti.
Where was Robert meeting these women, we wondered.
Tara knew. “The bi potluck,” she said.
We all avoided the bi potluck, though not out of any form of protest. It had just kind of removed itself from us around the time we all started working on The Lit, one of five University literary magazines, recently usurped from the clutches of this hetero turd from Regina who only published poetry by stupid sorority girls.
Outside my windo-
the wind moves through me
It was something we were all a little obsessed with. The Lit. Maybe because it gave us some credibility, some say in what went where. We had big arguments about integrity since taking over the magazine.What was ART? Who were we to judge ART? What elements would we judge ART on?
On the flip side the bi group was a fairly happy-go-lucky bunch that met on Wednesdays, which was when The Lit had most of its meetings, and so only Tara and Robert (who were less devoted to The Lit) still attended the odd bi meeting. Tara because she was trying to pick up this hot French bi chick named Lute, who had recently shaved her head, and so became hotter. Robert was there… well, clearly Robert was to pick up women to stalk.
We had our own bi group theories that we kept amongst ourselves. Bisexuality, as we discussed with each other at length, seemed less like sexuality and more like politics, especially as it applied to boys. It was kind of a “not-asshole” stamp for boys who went to bi-potlucks but never came to the bars on Saturdays to party, never kissed boys. There was a teddy bear-ness to them, though, that made you want to think that they would kiss boys, or at least not question why they didn’t or hadn’t. They could cook things without meat. They were in the arts or political studies (like all the other homos). They had cats.
Robert’s cat's name was Gertie and he was famous for his food that did not involve the death of any animals. Robert was not the top dog in the bi group; a curly haired guy named Scott was the Bi Rep that year. All the girls in the bi group, likely because of its organic presence, its fern-ish qualities, its suggestion of life, loved Scott’s hair. It smelled like lavender. Chicks, especially bi chicks, dug Scott. Okay, everyone dug Scott.
Not everyone dug Robert.
Not really. Not Sexually. I mean, we all liked him but, clearly, that’s not the same thing.
Rachel was not alone on the porch. There was a small platoon of women pacing in the cold behind her, a recognizable group who stood with their arms in their pockets, looking at Rachel, looking at us. Stephanie was there, her hair pulled back into a business-like bun.
They made us feel kind of over-dressed, standing there in the doorway in our sexy outfits, our PVC squeaking in the draft.
We let them in, standing behind the door while they filed past, a few of them wiped their snowy boots on the mat.
Robert was in the living room playing Risk with the lefty fags, kind of huddled and sulking in the corner. Rachel walked up to him and put her hand on his shoulder like Yoda playing a sad game of duck-duck-goose. And then they all filed upstairs to the second floor to Matt’s bedroom, which we thought was a better meeting place than the room where Risk was being played.
We snuck into the closet of the room next door, climbing over shoes and pants and sweaters. We pressed our ears against the paper-thin wall.
Rachel asked Robert to pay attention to what the women had to say before he brought his comments into the discussion. Mostly Stephanie and two other women—we didn't know them—spoke. Stephanie talked about what Robert had done that she felt was “violating.” “Abusive,” one girl added, and there was a murmur of agreement in the room. Someone mentioned that Robert’s behaviour was particularly disturbing because he was considered a trusted member of a very woman-positive community. What upset them, one woman said, was that he seemed to be doing these things to get attention, regardless of how it was making his female friends feel. What other explanation was there, someone—Rachel?—wondered aloud, for someone like Robert in this situation. One other woman said she didn’t think that Robert should be able to attend any meetings in the women’s centre anymore, which would include the bi meeting. There was another murmur of agreement. Robert was quiet but we could hear him, scooting around in his chair.
After a while, Rachel asked Robert if he had anything to say for himself. There was a pause, then the sound of a chair being pushed back and a door opening and Robert appeared in the hallway. From the closet we could see him in profile.
He didn’t say anything. He turned and trotted down the stairs. He grabbed his coat and his bag from the doorway and left.
Some of the women stayed at the party after the mediation. Lute stayed. Lute was there.
It was amazing how easy it was to cut Robert out of our lives. It came up in conversation, several times, that he didn’t really belong there in the first place. He had a creepy way to him, we decided. He was cheap and never tipped the waitresses at The Hangup because, Rob reported, Robert said it wasn’t a real restaurant. Cheap! And he was always late for meetings, and he was always complaining about head colds, and he was touchy-feely. Definitely touchy-feely. Yes. We all saw it clear as a bell.
More stories came up after that. Little things like strange touches and awkward silences people had shared with Robert. Everyone had one, it turned out, even Tara, who said Robert once insisted on braiding her hair even when she had expressly told him she didn’t want it braided. For the rest of the semester, whenever Robert walked into the room it got tense. Some of us gave pinched smiles in his direction. But we said nothing. He had a habit of sitting at a table not too far away and reading. Which we decided we didn’t like.
A couple of us got phone calls. We kept them short. We got phone messages. We didn’t return them.
When we found a submissions envelope in The Lit with his return address on it, we didn’t even want to open it, but we had to be impartial, because ART is impartial, so we did.
We thought maybe it would be something really gross. Maybe it’s pictures of women, like, stalker pictures, Tara suggested.
It was a poem.
We read it aloud.
before I was not
now I am the convicted
criminal in just…
~ Robert LeRoth
I don’t get it, Rob said. None of us got it.
So we didn’t print it.