Whenever I hear the song "Black Hole Sun" by Soundgarden, I sing along with a French accent. That song conjures dune grass, cobalt sea and cerulean sky. Hot air, suffused with ocean mist, bug spray and sun block. Me and my sister, with her long blonde hair tangling in the wind, as she carefully applied mascara after a day on the beach, so that we could hit the boardwalk together.
The year was about 1995. I'd finally broken off a soul-crushing relationship with a guy who'd tried to force me into a lockbox of his creation. Free again, I reconnected with my sister, who had been in elementary school when I'd gone away to college. The spirited, dimpled girl who was continually singing had become a fiercely beautiful teenager whose serious expression made her look years older but who still possessed the same impish sense of humor.
Our family hadn't taken a vacation together in several years, not since our parents separated. Plus, I hadn't spent a summer at home since college started, spending the first year as a camp counselor and the rest at an off-campus apartment. For that reason, I'd missed out on the few vacations my siblings took with one parent or the other. Now, as an adult and an almost adult, my sister and I planned a vacation together, just the two of us. I can't remember which one of us suggested camping on Assateague Island National Seashore, but the site fit our modest budget perfectly. We could spend a long weekend there, tent camping, preparing our own breakfasts and lunches, and then driving into Ocean City, Maryland, for dinner and entertainment.
We had camped at Assateague before, a somewhat legendary trip with our mother when she and Dad had first separated. Most of that vacation went smoothly, but all anyone ever talked about was the night that didn't: when my brother had gotten food poisoning, thrown up all over the tent where he was sleeping, and then, on top of that, a thunderstorm had struck. I'd been about 17, and my Mom had asked me to drive my "boat of car," a 1973 Chevy Caprice Classic, which we'd brought because it was roomier than her Ford Escort. The driving rain had made the island road so dark I'd depended on lightning to see my way forward. We'd found an all-night laundromat to clean the tent and then stayed that night in a motel room.
With just two of us Wilsons along, we hoped to avoid the trouble that seemed to follow us as a group. This had to be better than past family vacations, like the time in Chautauqua, New York, when I crashed my bike into a tree and split open my lip, drinking from a straw for the rest of the week; or the trip to Maine where we dealt with both a gas leak and then a car break-in.
Overall, the Wilson sisters' vacation was turning out much better, except for the biting flies, attracted by the wild ponies who live on the island. We loved watching the ponies on the beach, especially at sunrise, but we hated their horseflies. My sister, who had begun leaning into her leadership strengths, established our routine of spraying each other all over with bug spray the minute we woke up in the morning, and after taking a shower.
One day, a couple days into our trip, she came back from the shower, her long, damp hair turning her shirt dark. The more expensive state park had heated showers and flush toilets, but the national park only had chemical toilets and chilly showers, designed for removing sand quickly. I think this particular day, she might have walked all the way down to the national park's bathhouse, stealing a hot-water shower, so to speak.
She sat at the picnic table, sighed and said, "It feels so good to be clean, but not for long." After smoothing sunblock on her legs and arms, she asked me to help her with her back and then douse her with another bug spray dose.
That's when the French-Canadian guys at the campsite next to us started singing, at the top of their lungs, "Black Hole Sun." We couldn't see them because of the dune that separated our site from theirs, but their exuberant voices wafted to us, along with skunky marijuana fumes. The song clearly meant something to them, because that wouldn't be the last time we heard them singing it. Always in unison, at the top of their lungs, with their lilting accents bending the ends of the words.
My sister and I would look at each other with a smile that said, "There they go again." We'd continue with what we were doing: putting together our lunches or putting on makeup for a trip to the boardwalk. Their group song became our in-joke.
Over the course of our days together, my sister and I got to know each other again, as adults. We talked openly about relationships, about our hopes and dreams, and about silly things, too. It was like a slumber party that lasted for several days. Yes, there were stinging flies and pony poop on the beach, but that brief vacation ranks among the best I've ever taken.
Our friendship flourished in the days and years afterward. Assateague marked the beginning of young adult adventures together, like the sun-blazing music festival where the lead guitarist in a band called Moonboot Lover played guitar with his teeth; or the festival in the woods where we ate some mushrooms and got weirded out by a band who wouldn't stop talking about worms; or the Grape Jam Festival near Erie, Pennsylvania, where Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart saw my big camera and grinned at me from the stage, and where Tragically Hip fans from Canada wrapped themselves in Canadian flags and drank way too much Labatt's.
Those days may be long gone, but we've replaced them with family trips. All three siblings gather with our children and our father, tempting fate by gathering too many Wilsons together. Jamming into rented cabins, or into my sister's surprisingly spacious little house, we spend our days at museums or beaches, where our kids play and we talk until the sun goes down.
So many memories later, and still, the minute I hear that song, I can't help singing along. At the top of my lungs. In a French accent.
In case you'd like to do likewise, here's the video for "Black Hole Sun."