No Cap

A piece of flash nonfiction that speaks to the essential comradery found in shared traumatic experiences…

by: Shawna Ervin

Trigger Warning: This story contains references to sexual assault that might be disturbing to some readers.

The glass is cold against my back at the coffee shop. I sit in a corner, my back to the drive-through. On my right are windows. On my left is a counter where baristas make drinks. Despite twenty years passing after my dad’s arrest for physical and sexual abuse, my body remembers terror. It is work to go to the grocery store, to talk to neighbors. I know I need to sit in a corner where I can see everyone, everything.

I consider working at home but struggle to concentrate with two young kids. I am determined to feel safe away from home and to refuse fear.

In each person who enters the store, I look for traces of biological family I haven’t seen since my dad was arrested. To them, when I reported the abuse to the police, I betrayed an innocent man of God. I had not trusted God’s will. I was unforgivable. I still fear their wrath, their need to punish me. As a girl, I was wholly responsible for protecting my dad from his sexual desires. I had failed. I was cast out of both genetic and church family.

In each customer, I look for genetic traits like wide foreheads, lanky limbs, pointed chins with a single vertical line. I also look for hints of people I knew in church, people who would only be able to see sin in me.

This day, I am working on a critical paper for a master’s degree in creative writing. I have books to study, quotes to assemble. I have a general outline but am still thinking through what I need to say.

An employee in a black apron carries a tray of small cups to a man seated by the entrance. He lifts his headphones off one ear, shakes his head.

The employee turns to a woman at the next table. “Can I interest you in some pumpkin foam today?” The woman smiles, takes a cup.

The employee moves near a row of tall tables where a group of teenagers fidget and sway. “Hi. Would you…” The teens grab cups nearly toppling the tray.

The employee makes her way to my table. I feign focus on my notes, tap a rhythm on my knees. One two one two. I brace to fight.

My mind flashes back to childhood. In my memory, dishes break, my dad shouts, a table breaks under his fist. He reaches for me, twists my arm behind my back, throws me to the floor.

As the aproned barista gets close, I clench my fists, tap my fingernails into my palms, count.

I am small again. My dad’s fist flies through a plaster wall. He laughs. I flinch, close my eyes.

“Hi miss.” The barista’s tan skin and black hair blur into the glare of the afternoon sun.

I squint until I can see her dark chocolate-colored eyes.

“Can I interest you in a taste of our pumpkin foam?”

I clench my quads and relax them, remember a sensory ball and cinnamon gum I have in my purse for moments like this, but don’t want to reach for them. I don’t want anyone to see my weakness.

“Pumpkin foam, miss?” She rests the tray on the table, over my notes. There are two cups left.

I take one cup and sip. Foam sticks to my upper lip. I brush it off with the back of my hand, then brush my hand on my pants.

She speaks fast. “Have you had pumpkin in a drink before? You like chai, right?”

I nod and take another sip of foam. I taste the nutmeg and allspice, a bit of whipped cream. I like it.

“Have you ever tried pumpkin chai? Do you like sweet? People say it’s really sweet. I haven’t tried it.”

I finish the foam. Her eyes light up. “Would you like the other cup? I’m just going to throw it away.”

I realize that I haven’t spoken yet, that I am no longer shaking. “Yes, please.” I laugh nervously.

She glances at my cup with my name, nods, and goes back to work.

Time passes. I make progress on putting my notes in order. I flip through books noting potential quotes with sticky flags. I forget the employee and the foam.

Then, the barista is at my table holding a paper cup. She has saved foam from customers who didn’t want it.

“I can save more.” She screeches the chair opposite me out and sits in it. She blocks my view of the parking lot and doors.

I angle my chair toward the corner. She says she was adopted from China as a toddler, then abandoned a few years later. She aged out of foster care about a year ago. She has no contact with her biological or adoptive family.

“I’m sorry,” I say. “Do you have a safe place now?”

She fidgets, crosses her arms, and rests them on the table. Under each cuff, I see her hands twitch. Each time the bell on the door sounds, she twists around to look.

“I’m getting cold by the window,” I lie. “Do you want to sit here?”

We switch. She tenses her shoulders, relaxes them.


“You can tell?”

“Me too.” I open my purse, show her the sensory ball and gum. I slide the pack of cinnamon gum to her.

“No cap?” She leaves her arms crossed.

“For the foam.” I push the piece of gum I’m chewing forward to my teeth to show her.

She smiles. “Bet.”

I hold up my fist for a fist bump. “Bet,” I say.


Shawna Ervin has an MFA from Rainier Writers Workshop through Pacific Lutheran University in Washington state. She was a member of Tin House’s 2023 and 2024 Winter Online Workshops as well as Kenyon Review’s 2023 Workshop for Teachers Online. She was a finalist for Kenyon Review’s 2024 Developmental Editing Fellowship. Recent publications include poetry in American Literary Review, Bangalore Review, Cagibi, Synkroniciti, and Rappahannock Review; and prose in Blue Mesa Review, Sonora Review, Sweet: A Literary Confection, and elsewhere. Her chapbook Mother Lines was published by Finishing Line Press in 2020. Shawna was a finalist in Ruminate’s 2021 flash essay contest and a semi-finalist in their 2022 poetry contest. Shawna lives in Denver with her family.

Header art by Linda Carmel.

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