I first noticed the symbol on the back of a car in the student lot. It was one of those little raised plastic badges that get slapped on bumpers by dealers so you’ll be free advertising for them and that don’t come off without taking some of your pain with them.

But instead of a dealer’s name, or even a please-don’t-pull-me-over Fraternal Order of Police badge, there was only an odd abstract symbol. Even up close I couldn’t quite place the very complex and artfully molded sign; maybe two dogs eating a zipper or a pomegranate being pulled apart with tongs. Either way, I shrugged it off as a curiosity.

The next week, walking through that same lot for the same class, I saw that there were now half a dozen plastic bumper mystery symbols. I recognized that one was on Craig’s car, ans asked him about it when we were smalltalking before class.

“Oh, it is what it is,” he said, and quickly changed the subject.

A month later I was seeing the mystery badges all over town, on bumpers attached to everything from pot junky junkers to police cars and EMTs. People also started wearing it as a lapel pin, and I saw it embroidered on a scarf and embossed into a fancy cellphone case.

In addition to my own innate it’ll-get-you-into-trouble-someday curiosity about what the hell the symbol actually depicted, I was ravenously curious why, despite its increasing ubiquity, no one would tell me why they were displaying it:

“It is what is is.”

“If you have to ask you don’t want to know.”

“It only means what you believe it means.”

At the beginning of summer term people like me without a car badge or a lapel pin or an embossed/knit/whatever were a distinct minority. Oddly—maddeningly—the other “have-nots” seemed blithely unconcerned, regarding the symbol as just another vague fad like slap bracelets or pogs.

I would sometimes lay awake at night—now that there were no classes to otherwise occupy me—and think about those zipper-eating dogs or pomegranate-pulling tongs. At this rate, the time would soon come when I was the only one in town without the symbol. Or perhaps whatever the other people had done to display it would have to happen to me.

Can’t say which of the two possibilities creeped me out more.