Toshiki Nakashige talks about science, writes, and loves dogs.

Fellowship of the Emoji Ring

The first thing you need to know about Maya is that she doesn’t like dogs.

The second thing is that she doesn’t like sports. The guy can play a sport. A soccer player is sexy. But a man who spends a Sunday afternoon wearing a shirt with another man’s name on his back and worshipping that namesake like a religious figure is unattractive. For the record, it’s not unattractive to me, but right now her tastes are the ones we need to enumerate.

She won’t surrender her feelings about dogs and sports quickly. In fact, she might not say anything at all. Maya isn’t shy or passive, nor does she skirt the truth to appease someone. But it’s just not in her nature to voice these opinions so directly, especially before getting to know a person, before carefully assessing how they might react. Nevertheless, right here right now, her feelings about dogs and sports are front and center. It might be the veil of a smartphone, or the fact that a surrogate is the one presenting you this information. But online dating has made defining such deal breakers so easy and outwardly expressing them so normal.

According to the data I collected by sifting through hundreds of Hinge profiles and by fielding many puns, the majority of straight men 5’10” and taller between the ages of 28 and 37 within 5 miles of Brooklyn who identify as any of the race options available will have a photo of themselves with a dog or wearing another man’s jersey somewhere on their profile.

My personal forays into online dating are limited and tragic. Maya will punctuate at the most unwelcome times, “Remember the time you invited your Tinder date to my birthday?” However, one thing I do know about is data, which is why she instills incredible amount of trust in me and why we are here.

In real life I’m a 5’8” Asian man living in Manhattan and—guilty—would have a dog in a photo to attract other dog lovers. Online, however, I’m a mixed race woman shorter than 5’8” named Maya from Brooklyn who boasts a thoughtfully curated profile. There are three types of photos: 

(1) eyes averted, to create an air of mystery;

(2) posed on international landmarks, to flaunt her worldliness; and

(3) a perfectly positioned selfie that, in my mind, echoes that one line in Memoirs of a Geisha, “You need to stop a man in his tracks with a single look.”

When I take on a new personal challenge, I take it on seriously, and catfishing is no exception.

Before you get weird, Maya is my friend, and she’s completely supportive of this arrangement. In fact, it’s probably the most constructive activity we’ve done for our friendship. I meet straight men online, chat with them as her, and set dates up where Maya—and not me—shows up in real life.

The origin of Maya’s subsidized online dating feels like mountains and valleys ago. Our friend group has a monthly dinner rotation, and December was in East Village hosted by Lilly and James. The Lord of the Rings was playing on their TV. It’s never intentional, but for the past few dinners, conversation had always ended up pointing to Maya’s love life. Or at least highlighted the fact that she was single.

A year ago I introduced Maya to one of my best friends. He’s handsome and effortlessly charming, and before I had any idea, he and Maya were dating. Over the course of their relationship, I learned that, like me, she was a hopeless romantic. She laughed at his unfunny jokes and thought of their adventures together as endless as a star-filled night. As their unintended matchmaker with an incredible meet-cute story to share, I began planning the speech I would give at their wedding.

The warmth that I felt every time I received a video from their travels together over the course of a few months dissolved in the moment that I received Maya’s text, “Tosh, I’m sorry that you won’t be able to officiate our wedding anymore.” That night I met Maya at Union Square, and we talked in the rain and in the crumbs of Japanese cookies. Their relationship unfolded entirely independent of me, but knowing that things ended unexpectedly between them weighed on me slowly. Maya doesn’t need a man to be happy, but I also knew it was important to her.

After a hearty meal in Lilly and James’ living room, I suggested the possibility of online dating for Maya. She was busy with work and wasn’t meeting eligible bachelors often, so it seemed like a casual idea. By then, they were collectively consumed by the TV, so I’m not sure whether what I said registered. It was probably the climax of The Fellowship of the Ring, but I just wasn’t interested in elves and hobbits and the Eye, in high school when it first came out and even now. I remember asking, “Did the king die?” to which they calmly responded, “No, Tosh.” I later realized that there probably wouldn’t be a movie called The Return of the King later in the trilogy if whoever the king was died in the first movie. So like, where did the king go?

I think a battle scene had just ended, and Lilly and James looked over at me and enthusiastically agreed that it would be worthwhile for Maya to meet new people online, even if just to realize that there are good guys to date in New York. Maya responded that she tried online dating right after college. She didn’t have success then and didn’t think she’d have any now.

“What if I set up dates for you?” My playful suggestion to expand her social network evolved into a serious proposal of finding her a suitor. I like challenges. “I’ll chat as you on Hinge, and if chatting with them is going well, I’ll tell you when and where your first date is.”

I expected an unequivocal negative, but perhaps because she was distracted by the sight of Legolas on screen, Maya said, “Umm… sure, as long as I don’t have to do any work.”'

With the acumen of military leaders assembling their troops, Lilly, James, and I started mining Maya’s Instagram for eligible photos, and within 15 minutes, we had crafted her profile. Six photos and three answers for preset prompts on the app. Legolas inspired one of those answers.

We also had a discussion about setting the match preferences. That is, the height, age, race, religion, and other traits of the guys that would show up as potential matches on the app. This is where I realized that it gets tricky. Dating preferences are personal. We casually say dogs and sports are deal breakers, and I think it’s not unusual to say that you’d only date someone taller or shorter than you. Maya said, no preferences for race or religion.

“OK, no dogs and no sports.” I then asked, “Do you have a preference for the type of job they have?” The more data points, the better, I thought.

“What about dad bods?”

“What about bald?”

We set the ground rules. To ensure that my personal biases wouldn’t compromise the best likelihood that Maya would meet an ideal guy, I would send screenshots of my favorite matches to Lilly and James, and only after they approved of the match could I set up a date with them. My bias leaned toward Jewish, naturally. Based on her approval record, Lilly appeared to be skeptical of too much hair product, but more than the photos, she needed to assess the conversation level in the chat. A grounding figure in all this, James just wanted someone he could see himself hanging out with when Lilly and Maya were off doing something. He didn’t really like the “no sports” thing.

Altogether, we could triangulate the qualities of a perfect man for Maya.

They watched the end of the movie as I began matching and chatting, and by the time I was home two hours later, we already had a guy ask Maya out on a date. It turns out that I have game over chat. I sent the photos and details of this first match to Lilly and James in a group chat the next morning. They declined—one of his photos looked a little too sporty, Lilly stated—and I went back to the app and shot off a quick message that I didn’t think we (he and Maya) were a match. Thoughtfully, she didn’t want me to ghost these people, and I complied.

Although the first match didn’t work out, there were still many options, and enthusiasm for this process wasn’t diminished. Lilly changed the name of our group chat to “Fellowship of the Ring,” where “Ring” was the diamond ring emoji. We weren’t necessarily trying to marry off our friend to a stranger, but the symbolism was appreciated.

Within the week, I was juggling around 30 chats with different guys. It was the coma-inducing lull between Christmas and New Year, and I spent a lot of time lying in bed on my iPhone and googling things like “ice cream puns” to figure out how to respond to some of them. My proudest Hinge message is, “This conversation is going down a rocky road.”

Of the ten or so profiles I sent to Lilly and James, they approved of four. First was Ian, who was traveling for the holidays and would be back in time for New Year’s Eve. Nate, the Australian. Mitchell, a military guy, which I loved. And York, who I drunkenly messaged looked like a lion. I’m not perfect.

We all agreed that I should set up dates with these guys after New Year. Because it was the holiday season, we wanted to be careful not to sound aggressive by asking to meet these men right away. For the record, I had no problem asking these guys out. My goal was to get Maya to meet them in person as quickly and efficiently as possible. Beyond momentary flirtation, I was as straightforward as I could be with these guys. It wasn’t in Maya’s nature to be that direct when it comes to first dates, but it was a needle I was willing to help move.

Lilly and James were traveling for the holidays. Maya and I were in town, and having a lot to catch up on from the past week’s activities, we decided to go out to a New Year’s Eve party. Our vibe, nothing too expensive or loud, a speakeasy in our usual neighborhood. After wading through the sea of people around the open bar, we sat down at a booth with two drinks each. I opened up Hinge and showed her the chats with our Fellowship-approved fellows in what I called a debrief session. I told her about Ian’s self-deprecating joke that I thought was cute. I supported Nate’s accent, even though I hadn’t actually heard it despite repeated attempts to search his social media for any sample of his voice. I told her that Mitchell moved to New York recently, suggesting Maya could show him the world! (Maya noted that I used many more exclamation points over text than she would ever use.) And I showed her York’s lion-like appearance.

Closer to midnight, we maneuvered to a space near the bar where we danced. A guy walked up to the bar next to us and ordered a drink. In that moment, the internet and actual universes collided. I had definitely seen that guy before and was chatting with him only a few hours earlier. I leaned over to Maya, “That’s Ian!”

She looked at me incredulously, “Did you tell him that I was going to be here?”

Because of excitement or because of themed cocktails, I actually don’t recall the exact sequence of events after I spotted Ian and before I pushed Maya toward him, except that I said, “On Hinge, you chatted about Peru! Go talk to him!”

It would have been masterful if I had convinced Ian to show up to the same party we were at, but truthfully, it was sheer coincidence. The very first guy the Fellowship decreed worthy of Maya’s attention was standing right in front of us. I am the king of meet-cutes. Do I return in the last installment of LOTR?

Maya introduced herself to Ian at 11:57 pm on December 31, and by 12:05 am on January 1, they were dancing together like a scene in a movie. The rest of the night: eat pizza, exchange numbers (“Don’t text her right away. That’s desperate!”), order fries at McDonald’s, and interrupt Lilly and James on their international New Year brunch to recount the entire night via FaceTime.

Maya and Ian ended up meeting again the following week and went out on a few more dates after that. In the meantime, the Fellowship insisted that we set Maya up on a couple more dates. Ian was promising, but the goal of this entire project was to get Maya to meet more people. Since then, there were a few more matches: Gary, Raj, Shane, and Harrison, who I thought was too handsome for Maya. There’s no such thing, she ensured me.

I had to be the one to ask the guy out, which Maya wasn’t thrilled about, but she eventually met Mitchell, Fellowship-approved match #3. He was a gentle giant of sorts. As excited as I was about him, Maya was lukewarm, and she kindly declined his offer for a second date. Well, I actually sent a message to Mitchell through the app on her behalf because one of the ground rules was that she play hard to get and not share her number before meeting in person. It would also be a logistical nightmare coordinating whose phone number to give.

“I want to thank you for setting the precedent of straightforward honesty with these dates,” Maya texted me a few days later.

Advantageously, I had limited emotional investment in these guys. Of course, I wanted Maya to meet someone who she thought would be great and hoped the guy I set her up with would think she was great, too. But being removed from the superficial judgment of dating profiles and sidestepping the blow to self-esteem it can all encapsulate, I had clarity in assessing the practicality of a match and could just be honest. Flirtation feels good but can also be deceiving. In the week that I was chatting with Ian before they met, I set the tone of being honest and direct.

Maybe four dates in, Ian had asked her about an idea for a date. It involved an activity that he enjoyed but, truthfully, one that Maya didn’t care much for. She told me that, probably in the past, she would have just said yes to that kind of thing to satisfy the guy, an approval-seeking gesture. This time, however, she responded to Ian with something to the effect of, “No, I’m not interested in doing that, but we can find something we both want to do.” Ian reacted positively to her assertiveness.

Four months later, now, Maya is single again, perhaps partly because of her directness but mostly in spite of it. There were two or three other Hinge matches I was excited about for her, but the whole ordeal, including Ian, withered by the end of February. I think it’s a pattern for Maya and for me too. Dating interests fade before anything can really begin. It’s like forgetting all but the catchiest parts of the chorus to a song you thought might become your summer jam.

On a somber Tuesday evening over a candlelit cocktail, we met and talked about the conclusion to her winter romance with Ian. This one ended unexpectedly, too, but no Japanese cookies to crumble in our heartbreak. I had spent four weeks chatting with straight men to find out their preferences for domesticated pets and athletics, but at the end of it, the person I felt closest to was Maya.

“Thanks for trusting me to set you up on dates. It was mostly just for fun at the beginning, but I eventually got really into it, and I know it didn’t end great, but I learned a lot about you, and I think that’s pretty great.”

Online dating gets our hopes up because all of the possibilities in a companion are itemized right in front of us, literally in our hands, but because of the number of choices and the preferences we mentally and digitally annotate, we’re conditioned to search for deal breakers. We let these shortcomings consume us instead of appreciating the positive qualities that a person brings to a relationship. Any deviation from our imagination becomes a wine-stained flag that’ll guide us in our next adventure. 

Truthfully, if Maya and I looked for deal breakers in each other, we might not be friends.

The first thing you need to know about me is that I have a dog. Maya understands how much my dog means to me, and even though she’d prefer that he not jump to take food from her plate when she’s eating, Maya will put up with those unfavorable moments because she admires me for other qualities. Qualities that you can’t capture in a photo, no matter how perfectly positioned, or summarized in an answer to a preset prompt. She wouldn’t want to date someone with a dog herself, but she’ll be a champion for any dog lover who can sweep me off my feet.

I taught Maya how to be a little more assertive, and it took impersonating a girl for me to learn about dating. Despite the number of tragedies we’ve collected about dwindling romances in the past decade, we impart wisdom sometimes. Most of the time, though, we chase new memories and emblazon our twenties with new excitement. To this day, the euphoria of the meet-cute on New Year’s Eve still brings a stupid smile to my face. Maya and me, two hopeless romantics under a McDonald’s awning, thinking we knew something about love.


Some names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.

Toshiki Nakashige