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My first tattoo is of a white question mark inside of a black diamond. The tattoo is on my inner left forearm and it faces me. Other people view it upside-down, but I didn’t get it for them. I got it because of my best friend.

The first time, all I could do was watch as red came out and black went in, answer yes-or-no questions, think of him, and feel the pain. The tattoo eventually took its shape. I had designed it myself, or at least I was taking credit for it; it had come to me in a dream.

It was snowing that night. I still have to take a deep breath when I think about that night. I was on my way out the door to visit a friend as my father was on his way in. He had news that he needed to share with me and it couldn’t wait until I got back. We stood outside as the snow was falling faintly, faintly falling. My best friend, from the first day of kindergarten, and one of the few people who understood me, one who was always there to listen, always there when I needed him, always there, did the unthinkable. Something despicable. Something I don’t know I if I can ever forgive him for doing. He died. In a fire. He left me here. I pretended to shrug it off and got in my car as I still had another friend to see.

I had seen vaguely worded posts of mourning on the various social media platforms, and I had known it was someone local, but no one said who. I had only seen nicknames I did not recognize. I hadn’t considered myself as part of the town, part of the community in a long time. I had purposely lost contact with some people who I had once thought were my friends. I had gone to high school a long bus ride away. I had lost touch and I didn’t care. Until that night.

I started driving to go see my friend. She was still alive; she could still talk to me. But it was snowing, the roads were slippery, and my car was losing control. I did not get far and was forced to pull over into an empty parking lot.

Once I had parked, I lost control.

It was not until days later, when the wake was held, that I learned that my best friend had died of smoke inhalation. He just went to sleep and that was it. No horrific burning like my mind made me believe. No suffering. Just sleep.

The line for the wake was something to behold. It wrapped around the inside of the room where his body was, into the next room, out the door, around the building, and a mile down the street. He was everybody’s friend, but he was my best friend. It was cold out and volunteers passed out hand warmers and hot chocolate to mourners as they waited to say their condolences and goodbyes. I didn’t see any of this for myself. My mom told me about after she gave her condolences. I stayed home, as, again, I had lost control. I would not get that control back and by the time I did, I had this faded, misshapen tattoo on my forearm staring at me. Mom said he looked good.

There was a small dry erase board next to my bed. I had been getting ideas in the middle of the night and got in the habit of writing them down so I wouldn’t forget them in the morning. Nothing had graced it in a while. I woke up the day after the wake and looked at the board. I was surprised I had even fallen asleep as I’d been so wracked with guilt for skipping the wake that I spent most of the night staring at the ceiling above my bed. I must have fallen asleep because I had a dream.

In that dream I was standing in the clouds and everything was bright white. My best friend was there before me, wearing robes. Or maybe it was a suit. I did not remember when I woke up because I had been focused on his eyes and the kindness in them when he grabbed my forearm and said, “It’s okay. You’ll need this.” When he released my arm, he left a mark, a tattoo. I asked him what it meant. He told me that I would figure it out. Sure enough, when I woke up, on the board was the tattoo: a black diamond with a white question mark in the middle.

I didn’t remember waking up to draw it. Still don’t.

I’m a quiet person by nature. I don’t talk much because I prefer to listen. I wish my dream had placed the tattoo somewhere easily hidden by a t-shirt. Over the years, many people have asked me something along the lines of “So what does the question mark mean?” I choose not to answer this question and play it off as a joke. I would rather smile and laugh about how it makes me “dark and mysterious” than tell them about the dream or all the lessons I have learned from this simple tattoo. Or I tell them the truth with “It’s a long story” and “I don’t like to talk about it.” I know what the tattoo has come to mean to me and it is neither succinct nor satisfying. In all honesty, I’m still figuring it out because it never holds any one meaning for very long. Mostly, I don’t answer truthfully because I don’t want to talk about how my best friend was more mature than me, even from beyond the grave, and came to say goodbye to me when I couldn’t come say it to him.

I didn’t get my tattoo to be an “inked up” Millennial. I did not get my tattoo to rebel. I do not seek to be cool or edgy, hip or fashionable. I got my tattoo because I needed it. It got me through the darkest of times, when I felt like there was no point to going on. When my best friend died in a fire and I became cold as the snow, cynical and dark as the sky that night. But I got over it in time with help from friends new and old, and a special, simple, faded question mark.

Ryan Fay

Ryan is an editor and semi-pro author with life goal of having enough money to buy the cool things people make in DIY videos.

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