Muted Stains and Chili Flakes

Thai Sweet Chili Sauce – a staple of Thai cuisine; take a spoonful of the savory-sweet seasoning and use it to dress your veggies in a red-chili-speckled attire. This versatile dipping sauce will give a kick to your stir-fry’s, jazz up your dumplings, and add a dash of sweet and sour goodness to any appetizer of your choosing. Try dipping your egg rolls in it to add a punch of vinegar and sass, drown your sauteed shrimp in it too, and your fried wontons, your crab rangoons… But if you can help it, try not to drown your favorite, most prized and idolized possession in the stuff.

Now, it’s not that I decided to deliberately drown my beloved notebook in chili sauce because I thought the vibrant, orange-red hue would provide a charming contrast against the notebook’s brown leather binding. Nor did I accidentally mistake it for a fried appetizer during lunch. It could have happened to anyone, really – bottles of Thai Chili Sauce break open in backpacks all the time, right? I just never imagined it’d happen to me. And thus, when it did happen – when I opened my backpack and was met with a goopy, chili-flake-spotted disaster – I was far from prepared.

Thai Chili Sauce looks delicious, beautiful even, in the bottle. It does not, however, look as inviting on fabric.

As the sauce oozed from its cracked container, all I could do in that moment was stare, distant yet transfixed, as it coated my pencil cases, seeped into the lining of my backpack, and destroyed my favorite notebook.

The moment passed, and I managed to panic.

I scrambled in desperation to the restroom and dumped my backpack’s marinated contents onto the counter. My pencil cases, my pouches, my folders, and my notebook – all ruined, all red. The state of my pouches was unfortunate, yes, but I could buy new ones. The notebook, on the other hand, was irreplaceable – priceless.

One of my closest friends, of three years in fact, had given it to me. He was, and is, a constant and enduring source of support – in all aspects of my life, but especially in my tumultuous journey as a writer. Giving me the notebook was a way to encourage me to continue writing, to stay true to myself. What would he think of me then, once he discovered that I had taken his heartfelt gift – an expensive one, too – and let it drown in a dressing meant to be consumed with battered shrimp?

I looked up article after article on how to dissolve stains; I found plenty of advice on how to bleach garments and on how to make laptop surfaces gleam, but nothing could be done about soiled paper. With muted determination, I attempted to paint the page edges with a baking soda paste, dabbed them with detergent, even soaked the ends in a salt-vinegar mixture for 15 minutes…

But the red remained, and my heart sank.

I thought about bursting into tears; that’d be a fitting response to such a pathetic occasion, wouldn’t it? But bathing in self-pity wouldn’t do too much to improve the situation, so instead, I wiped the corners of my dampened eyes and pulled myself together.

I removed the leather binding and placed the binding in the sink to let it soak. And then I took a long look at the pages. The sauce, oh the sauce, had stained the edges and had started to spread into the book.

A few chili flakes lingered along the spine, so I rinsed the book under the faucet and winced a little as I watched the running water drip down the sides like tears. The red stain slowly turned from the color of a bandana to an almost bearable shade of pink. As the pale pink pages began to curl and quiver with damage, it almost looked beautiful – like a work of art, even.

Art, I thought. There are no mistakes in art, right? So if breaking open a bottle of chili sauce had been a spur of artistic genius, then could it really be considered a mistake?

I headed for the bedroom. I reached under my bed for a storage box that’d long been neglected and took out my watercolors, my water jar, and my brushes. I opened the lids, filled the jar with fresh water, held the tattered notebook over a paper towel, and began to paint. Somehow, a mission to salvage a gift became a creative endeavor.

After putting off painting for over a year, I’d convinced myself that I’d never pick up a brush again – not enough time, not enough skill, not enough talent… excuse upon excuse. Yet here I was, a brush in my hand, dabbing the pages of my notebook with yellow paint. I masked the dull pink with layers of solid blue, colored over the pepper flakes with purple. I turned my notebook, once destroyed, into an expression of myself.

It was far from impressive, nor ideal, but it was me. Somehow, rising from the ashes of disaster came an opportunity – I was a painter again.

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