"Rajesh?" It was a girl's voice.
"Yes?" I replied, checking my watch for the time. Gods, it was 3:00 am!
"Are you ready?"
"No," I replied, a little confused about what I was supposed to be ready for. "Who is this?"
"Rhea. Are you still asleep?"
"Lady, it's three in the morning. Do I know you?"
"Oh, I'm sorry. I think I got the wrong number."
A little irritated, I nonetheless managed to fall asleep again as soon as I put the phone down.
The next morning, I vaguely remembered the phone-call, but wondered if I had been dreaming. I checked my cell phone and there had indeed been a call at three in the morning. I thought about it. Even in my sleep, the voice had sounded nice.
That night, I felt like some mischief. So I set the alarm for three the next morning, and went to sleep. At three, I woke up and dialed the number that my cell phone had dutifully recorded in the call log.
A sleepy voice picked up the phone. “Yes?” she said.
"Rhea?" I tried not to laugh.
She sounded sleepier than I must have been the previous night.
"Rajesh here," I said. "You ready?"
"Ready for what?" She seemed to be crawling her way to consciousness.
"Are you still asleep?" I avoided the question.
"Rajesh, daddy's flight was yesterday. You're a day late."
At this point I ran out of things to say, so I said sorry and hung up.
The next day, at 3:00am, she called again.
"Hello?" I had been asleep, but from the moment I opened my eyes, I knew it would be her.
"Rajesh? Rhea here."
"So what are you doing?"
"Dreaming about you," I replied.
"Well I just wanted to say Good Night." I could almost see the grin on her face. Of course at that point I didn't know what she looked like, so all I saw was a Cheshire-Cat-type grin hanging in the darkness. But you get the picture.
"Good night, Rhea" I said cheerfully
The late night phone calls went on for a week. They'd be short, but fun. And then I got tired of waking up in the middle of the night everyday, so I decided to call her before I went to sleep.
"You're early" she said.
"Yes," I replied. "I have an early day tomorrow. So I thought we could have this conversation now instead of at three."
"I know. Hey, what are you doing around seven tomorrow evening?" I wondered if I was moving too fast. Still, there didn't seem to be any harm in it.
"I'll be collecting my kids from school. What about you?"
My heart skipped a beat. For a few seconds, I didn't even breathe.
"Hello?" she said, to check if I was still on the phone. I could tell she was trying to suppress a giggle.
I relaxed. "I'm right here. Well, I'll be taking my grandchildren to have ice cream, at that time. I thought maybe you could get your kids, I could get my grandkids, and we'd all have ice cream together."
She paused for a second, and then said, "Sounds like a good idea."
The next day, I came home early from work, and took almost an hour getting ready. I wondered what she looked like.
We'd decided to meet at Baskin Robbins. When she'd asked me how she'd recognize me, I told her to look for an old man in a navy blue shirt. She had laughed at that. When I asked her what she'd wear, she said she hadn't decided yet.
At exactly seven, a little girl in a green dress walked into Baskin Robbins. The girl came straight to me, and said "Are you Rajesh Uncle?”
At that moment, I felt like the biggest fool on the planet. "What was I thinking?" I asked myself.
But then in came this girl in a T-shirt and slacks, who was definitely not the girl's mother. Elder sister, maybe, but no way was she a mother.
I lifted the little girl in my arms, and looked at Rhea. "You're quite the practical joker, aren't you?"
"Well, old man," she replied. "You said you'd get your grandkids along. What did you think this was? A date?" She knew she had got the better of me, and a big grin was plastered across her face.
"Oh, their parents decided this was not a good day for ice cream. So I came alone. Well, what's your name little girl?"
"My name is Priya."
"Ok, Priya, which ice-cream do you want to have today?"
She looked at Rhea and asked her, "Didi, can I have Mango ice cream?"
So Priya had Mango ice-cream with strawberry syrup, I had chocolate chip vanilla with caramel and nuts, and Rhea had Blueberry ice cream with no toppings.
We talked about how expensive school fees were getting, how it was almost impossible to get good medicine for arthritis, and the fact that there weren't enough playgrounds left for children to play in.
That night, when I called her up, I asked her, "So Priya is a cousin, is she?"
She laughed and replied, "No, not a cousin. She's the neighbour's kid."
"So you thought you needed an escort to meet me, did you?" I had been thinking about that all evening, but hadn't got a good opportunity to say it.
"Well a pretty girl has to protect herself."
"I won't argue with that." She definitely wasn't lacking in the looks department. "But did you really think a four-year-old could protect you?" I did find that amusing.
"Oh, her dad was waiting outside in the car for us all the time."
"Beautiful, intelligent, and sneaky. I like that in a woman."
"You're not too bad yourself, for an old man."
"Why, thank you. So, would you join an old man for coffee tomorrow? Without an escort?"
"Ah. A real date?"
"Only if you prefer to see it that way. I just thought an elderly man and a single mother could go share a cup of coffee."
"And then maybe a walk on the beach?"
"Slow down, soldier!"
"So just coffee is okay then?"
"Well," she said, pausing as if to think about it, "ok."
"That's great," I said as I started breathing again. "Good night, Rhea."
"Good night, Rajesh."
I smiled to myself as I went to bed. Next time, we'd do dinner.