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Dialing 911… Or Not: A Tough Call

Police car in front of the Parliament buildings, Ottawa, 2011
Police car in front of the Parliament buildings, Ottawa, 2011

A few nights ago, I was working late in the living room, on my laptop. Mark and Feng were sleeping upstairs.

Around 1 a.m., I heard loud voices. This is suburbia—in a quiet residential street, any unusual noise is very noticeable. I didn’t pay attention to it at first, I thought it was just a group of people walking by or guests leaving a house party.

About twenty minutes later, I went outside for a smoke and I realized the shouting came from the neighbours’ house. I don’t know them much. They moved in this summer when we were in France and I welcomed them briefly when we came back, but that’s about it. Feng and I tend to keep to ourselves. We don’t avoid social situations but you won’t see me inviting new neighbours over for a drink or a BBQ.

The neighbours are a fifty-something middle-class couple—not exactly the college party kind. As far as I know, they also keep to themselves and rarely have guests.

The shouting was loud.

At one point, the woman opened the front door. I was standing on our driveway, smoking and our eyes met briefly. I mouthed “are you okay?” She didn’t reply and stepped back in.

I also stepped back inside the house, kind of worried. I tried to analyze the situation. I couldn’t really figure out what was going on because I couldn’t make out what was being said. It sounded like an argument and it didn’t seem to be between the two partners—I was mostly hearing two male voices.

I wasn’t sure how to read the situation. I had immediately assumed it was an argument, but it could have been a bunch of drunk people playing poker—drunks are loud, annoying and irrational. And even if it was an argument, everybody argues once in a while… I’m sure at one point, over the course of the ten years we’ve been living here, someone heard either Feng arguing with his parents, Feng and I arguing or us sending Mark to his room. Hell, I’m sure our neighbours back home in France heard one of my mom’s legendary loud “ya basta!”

Moments later, I hear a guy screaming—and this time it was clear enough for me to understand it—“take the fucking gun, then!”

Now I was really worried, both for their safety (I had no idea how many people were in the house) and ours (since Mark bedroom is right across theirs).

I had no idea what to do. I stood there in the living room, clueless. Was I overreacting? Was someone in danger? Was it my business? I was half asleep, maybe I had misunderstood the part with the gun—and possibly misinterpreted the whole situation. But Ottawa’s latest murder (the crime scene I walked by without realizing it was a crime scene) had been a birthday party gone wrong. If someone would have called 911, maybe it wouldn’t have happened… and how about all these crimes where neighbours are questioned afterwards and claim they didn’t hear a thing? But if I called 911 and it was just a heated argument, would the neighbours get in trouble? Would I get in trouble?

At this stage, I have to confess that one of my biggest irrational fears is to have the cops called on me. I remember this one time, when Mark was at the terrible-two tantrum stage. That day, we were out and he cried for a good twenty minutes because he had seen a church somewhere and he wanted to go. Yes, it was in the middle of his church obsession, plus he was cranky that day. At the end, I did the only thing that worked to calm him down: I took him to a private place and “lectured” him. This translated into taking him to the ladies’ restroom and going “I’m not happy with you, Mark, this is not a way to behave blah blah blah” while he was sobbing. I wasn’t yelling at him but you could tell I was mad. A woman using the restroom came out and give me a look of disgust: “this is child abuse. You are abusing a baby!” I was both very pissed off at this stranger and terrified that she would… I don’t know, call the cops or child protective services. I left, with Mark still sobbing.

There was also that time where Mark told everyone at daycare that he showered with mommy (true, when we travel). And this stage, around three, where Mark would scream “you are HURTING ME!” when we would put his shoes on or zip up his sweater. Any stranger could have been concerned… yet it wasn’t exactly child abuse.

I still hadn’t made my mind about the neighbours’ situation when blue-and-red lights flashed through the curtains. I opened them an inch and saw several police cars parking along the curb, as well as paramedics.

The police went inside the house and stayed for a long time. At one point, someone left the house on a stretcher and the paramedic drove away.

A couple of hours later, everyone had left. Amazingly, Feng and Mark slept through it all, although Feng claimed he heard some noise when I told him the story the following day.

I have no idea what happened and I haven’t seen my neighbours since, although I know there is someone in the house and cars come and go.

I keep on thinking about that strange night and my reaction. At what point are you supposed to call the police or call for help? In my case, or just generally speaking when you feel there is something wrong? Have you ever dialed 911? Who do you call for help anyway? Can calling the police in such situation cause any trouble to anyone?

Have you ever dialled 911?

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