June beamed on the rare occasion that a starlet or director would come into the restaurant. She could recognize all of them the second they walked in the door because she read the gossip rags like bibles, appealing to her father’s soft spot to get him to buy her a copy of Sub Rosa or Confidential every week. When June scrubbed ketchup off the tables, she imagined herself at the Pantages Theatre for a movie premiere. When she swept the salt and sand off the floors, she wondered how it might feel to stay at the Beverly Hilton and shop at Robinson’s. June marveled at what a world the stars lived in. Just a few miles away and yet impossible for her to touch because she was stuck serving french fries to tourists.
June’s joy was something she stole between shifts. She would sneak out at night, sleep in when she could. And, when her parents were at work but did not yet need her, June would cross the Pacific Coast Highway and rest her blanket in the expanse of sand opposite her family’s restaurant. She would bring a book and her best bathing suit. She would fry her pale body under the sun, sunglasses over her eyes, eyes on the water. She would do this every Saturday and Sunday until ten-thirty in the morning, when reality pulled her back to Pacific Fish.
One particular Saturday morning during the summer of ’56, June was standing on the shoreline, her toes in the wet sand, waiting for the water to feel warmer on her feet before she waded in. There were surfers in the waves, fishermen down the coast, teens like her laying out blankets and rubbing lotion on their arms.
June had felt daring that morning and put on a blue gingham strapless bikini. Her parents had no idea it even existed. She’d gone into Santa Monica with her girlfriends and had seen it hanging in a boutique. She’d bought it with money she’d saved from tips, borrowing the last three dollars from her friend Marcie.
She knew if her mother saw it, she’d be forced to return it or worse yet, throw it out. But she wanted to feel pretty. She wanted to put out a signal and see if anyone answered.
June had dark brown hair cut into a bob, a button nose, and pert bow lips. She had big, light brown eyes that held the giddiness that often accompanies hope. That bikini held promise.
As she stood at the shoreline that morning, she felt almost naked. Sometimes, she felt a little guilty about how much she liked her own body. She liked the way her breasts filled out her bikini top, the way her waist pulled in and then ebbed out again. She felt alive, standing there, partially exposed. She bent down and ran her hands through the cold water rising up to her feet.
A twenty-three-year-old, as-yet-unknown Michael Riva was swimming in the surf. He was with three of the friends he’d made while hanging out in the clubs of Hollywood. He’d been in L.A. for two years, having left the Bronx behind, running west in search of fame.
He was finding his footing coming out of a wave when his gaze fell on the girl standing alone along the shore. He liked her figure. He liked the way she stood there, shy and companionless. He smiled at her.
June smiled back. And so Mick ditched his friends and headed toward her. When he finally made his way over, a drop of ice-cold water fell from his arm onto hers. She found herself flattered by his attention even before he said hello.
Mick was undeniably handsome with his hair slicked back from the ocean, his tan, broad shoulders shining in the sun, his white swimming trunks fitting him just so. June liked his lips—how the bottom was so full it looked swollen, and the top was thinner and had a perfect little v in the center.
He held out his hand. “I’m Mick.”
“Hi,” she said, taking his hand. The sun was beating down on them and June had to put her left hand over her eyes to block the glare. “I’m June.”
“June,” Mick said, holding on to her hand just a bit too long. He did not feed her a line about June being a beautiful name. He conveyed the sentiment clearly enough by the cool joy he took in saying it out loud. “You are the prettiest girl on this beach.”
“Oh, I don’t know about that,” June said, looking away, laughing. She could feel herself reddening and hoped he would not notice.
“I’m sorry to say it’s a fact, June,” Mick said as he caught her gaze again and then let go of her hand. He slowly leaned forward and kissed her cheek. “Maybe I’ll take you out sometime?”
June felt a thrill run through her, from her heart to her legs.
“I would like that,” she said, straining to keep her voice flat. June did not have much experience with men—the few dates she’d been on had been to school dances—but she knew enough to hide her eagerness.
“All right, then,” he said, nodding at her. “You’ve got yourself a date.”
As Mick walked away, June felt confident he had no idea she was giddy with delight.
That next Saturday night, at a quarter to six, June wiped her last table at the restaurant and quietly slipped off her red apron. She changed her clothes in the dimly lit, dingy bathroom. She waved her parents goodbye with a shy smile. She told them she was meeting a friend.
As June stood in the parking lot in her favorite A-line dress and a buttoned-up pink cardigan, she checked her reflection one more time in a hand mirror and smoothed her hair.
And then there he was at six on the dot. Mick Riva in a silver Buick Skylark. He was wearing a well-fitted navy suit with a white shirt and a thick black tie, not unlike the look he would be known for only a few short years later.
“Hi,” he said as he got out of the car and opened her door.
“Hi,” June said as she got in. “You’re quite the gentleman.”
Mick smiled out of only one side of his mouth. “Mostly.” June forbade herself from swooning.
“Where are we going?” June asked as Mick pulled out of the lot and headed south.
“Don’t you worry,” Mick said as he smiled at her. “It’s gonna be great.”
June sat back in her seat and pulled her purse into her lap. She looked out her window, facing the twilight ocean view. It was easy, in moments like this, to appreciate how beautiful her hometown was.
Mick pulled into the parking lot of the Sea Lion, built against the rocky shoreline, with its oversized swordfish sign proclaiming it WORLD FAMOUS.
June’s eyebrows went up. She’d been there a few times before with her parents on special occasions. There were hard-and-fast rules in her family for places like this: only water to drink, one appetizer, split an entrée, no dessert.
Mick opened up her car door and took her hand. She stepped out of the car.
“You look gorgeous,” he said.
June tried not to blush. “You look very handsome, as well,” she said.
“Why, thank you,” Mick said, smoothing his tie and shutting the door behind her. Soon, she could feel the warmth of his hand on the small of her back, guiding her toward the front door. She immediately surrendered to his touch. His command of her felt like relief—as if, finally, there was someone who would usher her toward her future.
Once inside, the two of them were led to a table by a window, looking out over the Pacific.
“This is lovely,” June said. “Thank you for bringing me here.”
She watched Mick’s face loosen and brighten into a smile. “Oh, good,” he said. “I took a chance you’d want seafood but I wasn’t sure. Since it sounds like your family owns Pacific Fish, right?”