“The boys in town are gonna get the wrong idea about you,” teased Lou*, a neighbor I do my best to avoid, as dusk settles in on the creek. “They’re gonna think you’ll take a beating.”
“No fucking way,” replied my favorite neighbor, Hank, after he’s recovered from a fit of laughter. “She wouldn’t take a beating!”
“Just look at her!” seconds Rob. The three men raise their tallboys and 40s to me, toasting my ability to be readily perceived as a woman intolerant of domestic violence.
The gruesome state of my face has been of great interest to my neighbors, earning me some much needed creek cred. I regale them with the story of my bad fall on a hiking trail miles away from my cabin, which is itself miles away from town. They want to hear about it from the very beginning, from the moment I slipped to the painful walk home, blood everywhere, about the lightheadedness and sleepiness that made it feel like a concussion, and the agonizing process of treating my own wounds. They check the progress of the deep gash along my cheekbone and upper lip, my raw knees and hands, and the chips on the bottom of my front tooth.
The three men raise their tallboys and 40s to me, toasting my ability to be readily perceived as a woman intolerant of domestic violence.
This isn’t the first time I’ve heard someone in the area mention the violence men can inflict on women. When I’m at the general store replenishing my Neosporin supply, a woman next to me points to my face and tells me to buy something for scarring. I fell on a hike, I say, answering a question she never asked. With a wink and a knowing look, she tells me, “Oh honey, I’ve been there,” and then hands me some advice along with a bottle of Vitamin E: There’s nothing a good dinner can’t fix at home.
By the time I drive down to San Francisco for a quick visit, my wounds have turned light pink and go unnoticed. I hadn’t experienced the combination of cocktails and friends in weeks, and I was excited to share my best cabin stories, including my face’s run-in with the ground. They’re all laughing until I get to the epilogue about my neighbors on the creek and the woman in the general store. Mirth is quickly replaced with disgust.
Many of them ask me if I feel safe, which I do. A few liberals admit they like shooting guns and wonder if I should get one, which I won’t. Some tell me it’s fine to come home early, which I won’t.
The most interesting questions have to do with the entitled techies, the population I’m attempting to escape. Do they make for a safer San Francisco? Isn’t a nerdy techie safer?
No. In 2013, Gurbaksh Chahal, a 32-year-old who sold two companies for $340 million by the age of 25, was caught on tape hitting and kicking his girlfriend 117 times. She told police that Chahal, who was named one of America’s “most eligible bachelors” by ExtraTV, repeatedly said “I’m going to kill you” during the 30-minute attack. He posted $1 million bail, hired a former federal prosecutor as his attorney, and authorities revealed that his girlfriend had suddenly became “uncooperative.” The surveillance video was inadmissible in court. A plea bargain was reached. Chahal avoided jail. In the photo on his Wikipedia page, he’s being embraced by President Barack Obama.
The thing is, I don’t feel skittish when I pass a man child in a Facebook hoodie, but I do when I walk by a towering, big-bellied man. Of the two, who would I find myself on a date with? Someone like Chahal, who doesn’t seem physically threatening. But someone like Chahal, with unlimited funds and the influence that comes with it, can be particularly dangerous. That’s why he only got three years probation.
These aren’t perfect comparisons, but they’re the ones I think about as I shuttle back and forth between city and country. I hear, read, and see the way domestic violence is treated on the Russian River and in San Francisco, and like my city friends, I cringe as soon as the words have been uttered, but the act of speaking so openly? That’s new to me.
The woman at the general store thought my face told a familiar story, and she wasn’t ashamed to say that. Would that have happened in the city? A few weeks ago, I wouldn’t have asked that question, but living in the country isn’t just about starting fires and then staring at them for hours, though I do plenty of that, and this essay isn’t just about domestic violence. It’s about the cultures I live in and move through. It took some time to really hear what the people around me were saying. In listening to creek people talk about creek life, I realized something about how we city people talk about city life.
Filed from a creekside cabin outside an unincorporated hamlet, Alexis Coe's Dispatches From the Russian River is a personal and historical exploration of leaving home and pursuing dreams.
*The names of locals have been changed.