Last year, I was at a Christmas tree lighting in my home town when my phone rang.
I didn’t know the man on the phone — not really, anyway. We met on Tinder months before and went on one date. After that date, he would call me occasionally. Usually when he was drunk or high, or both. Sometimes at 3 p.m. Other times, at 3 a.m. I never answered. I got the feeling he wanted something casual, but I wanted serious, so I moved on.
But that night at the tree lighting, I answered. The conversation felt awkward, but I listened as he told me of spending the holidays alone, self-medicating with whatever alcohol he could get his hands on. I was surprised by how candid he was with someone he had met only once. I didn’t know what to say, so I listened as he cried.
“Ariel, right?” He said after a while.
“Your name is Ariel, right? Like the fish?”
“Yeah, like the fish.” I tried to hide my annoyance at the fact that he didn’t even know my name.
“Ariel,” he said again. “Tell me about yourself. I want to know.”
I began listing random facts about myself. I told him how I always buy books that have notes to recipients written on the inside cover, because it makes me sad to see heartfelt gifts sitting alone on a shelf, gathering dust. I mentioned my love of animals and my affinity for vintage typewriters.
“You like typewriters?” he asked. “I’ll buy you a typewriter. I’ll buy you the most beautiful typewriter you’ve ever seen and you can write stories on them.” His tone was eager, but his words were slurred.
I didn’t acknowledge his comment. He couldn’t even remember my name; there was no way he’d remember my love of typewriters.
Two hours later, when he began to sober up, I told him I had to go. I’ve always been an empathetic person. I know that, depending on your situation, the holiday season is either the happiest or saddest time of year. So I stayed on the phone until I thought he would be okay. Then I promised to call in the morning and check in.
After we said our goodbyes and hung up, he texted me that he was planning to kill himself. “I have a gun in my garage,” the message read. “There’s no point in being alive.”
I quickly began looking up contact information for suicide hotlines, while also pleading with him not to do anything. As someone who has struggled with depression, I took his threat seriously. And even though I didn’t know him, I cared about his well-being.
As we continued texting, the conversation continued to escalate. I dialed 911. I was not sure whether it was the right thing to do, but I knew I’d rather do that than do nothing.
When I told the operator of the situation, she asked for the man’s name, birth date and address, but I only knew his first name and phone number.
The woman paused on the phone: “Wait — how long have you known him?” I told her we’d only met once, and she combed through the details as I recounted our meeting from months earlier.
“You must’ve made quite the impression if he feels he can open up to you in this way,” she commented, as I told her of our walk along the water and how he rode a motorcycle. I told her he was funny and respectful, how he walked me to my car and made me promise there would be a second date. I told her how I spent the days after our date excitedly waiting for him to ask me out again, but he never did.
While on the phone with the operator, my phone continued to buzz with a string of text messages: “Would you like to come over?” Then: “We can cuddle before I go.”
I read the messages aloud, as I cringed. Obviously, I wasn’t going to come over, but the operator urged me to get his address.
“You want me to trick him?” I asked.
“Only if you’re comfortable with that,” she said.
Though I was hesitant, I agreed.
I told the man I was on my way and asked where he lived.
After giving the operator the address, I listened as words like “suicide risk” and “gun” were announced over the radio in the background. When I was assured the situation would be handled, I hung up.
Climbing into bed that night, I couldn’t shake the guilt I felt. I should’ve tried to be a friend to him, I thought. But we weren’t friends. We were strangers with each other’s picture and phone number.
Apps like Tinder, that connect people instantly, can make us feel like we’re getting to know a person very fast. But getting to know a person takes time. It requires effort and mental and emotional availability. All we really know about another person on an app is what they choose to reveal. There was no way I could’ve known he was struggling. Although I wanted to help him, I had to prioritize my own safety, too.
In the morning, I woke up to messages from the man. He was angry, as I expected he would be.
“I can’t believe you sent the cops to my house. That is the meanest thing anyone has ever done to me,” he wrote, before telling me to never contact him again.
If it was the meanest thing someone had ever done to him, I was okay with that. Because at least he was alive.
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE WASHINGTON POST