The young couple embarks on a two-week vacation: he, confident and experienced at the ripe old age of 28; she, overly anxious and painfully shy.
Pulling into a gas station, she excuses herself while he waits to fill up. Disappearing into the woods behind the station, she emerges somewhere up the road. Soon, a sports car pulls over, the male driver opening the door to accept the beautiful hitchhiker. The couple is together again – only not.
They are no longer themselves; they are two actors playing their parts. As the hitchhiker, she becomes everything she is not in real life – and everything she thinks her man desires. Confident. Forward. Inviting.
Little does she know, that is not what he wants at all. He’s had that kind of woman. What he loves about her is her innocence; her purity.
As the game progresses, she becomes increasingly comfortable in the skin of the hitchhiker. She pushes the envelope from flirtatious to seductive, empowered and free.
But far from being impressed and attracted, he finds himself increasingly revolted by the character before him. Is this her true self? And so he slips on a mask of his own, playing “the tough guy who treats women to the coarser aspects of his masculinity: willfulness, sarcasm, self-assurance.”
The stakes continue to be raised, and the game ultimately finds its conclusion in a motel room. Though it culminates in sex, the intimacy she had hoped to achieve proves to be elusive, replaced instead by a gulf: she, broken; he, resentful. It is not at all what either of them had ever wanted.
Then it was all over. The young man got up off the girl and, reaching out for the long cord hanging over the bed, switched off the light. He didn’t want to see the girl’s face. He knew that the game was over, but didn’t feel like returning to their customary relationship. He feared this return. He lay beside the girl in the dark in such a way that their bodies would not touch.
After a moment he heard her sobbing quietly. The girl’s hand diffidently, childishly touched his. It touched, withdrew, then touched again, and then a pleading, sobbing voice broke the silence, calling him by his name and saying, “I am me, I am me….”
The young man was silent, he didn’t move, and he was aware of the sad emptiness of the girl’s assertion, in which the unknown was defined in terms of the same unknown quantity.
And the girl soon passed from sobbing to loud crying and went on endlessly repeating this pitiful tautology: “I am me, I am me, I am me….”
The young man began to call compassion to his aid (he had to call it from afar, because it was nowhere near at hand), so as to be able to calm the girl. There were still thirteen days’ vacation before them.
When The Airborne Toxic Event released a song called “All I Ever Wanted,” first on a live album of the same name and later on the 2011 album All At Once, lead singer Mikel Jollett let it be known that “The Hitchhiking Game” by Milan Kundera was the inspiration behind it. After reading the story, the connection is clear, but it should be noted that the song is not a strict retelling of the tale. In fact, in its original live incarnation, it functions more as a sequel, with the second verse looking back on the events of the story, which is described in the past tense.
The reference in verse two to “the time when we were alone together at the station” is the most direct link to Kundera’s story, drawing the astute listener right back to the start of the tale, and the gas station where the hitchhiking game begins. But that line is changed in the studio recording, with the result that the song becomes less grounded in the story on which it is based. And yet, the switch to present tense throughout the verse makes it more immediate, as Mikel escorts us into the soul of the characters.
The night you whisper like a ghost and you look so shaken
You’re so quiet and small and you tell me you want to be taken
I just never think of you as the kind of girl who would say that
You suddenly seem like some faceless thing in my grasp
In fact, she never was the kind of girl who would say that – not till now. And even now, is it really her who is saying it? Or merely the character she is portraying? He’s not entirely sure.
Your eyes so wide, your face aglow
It’s the face of someone I don’t know
He doesn’t recognize this girl before him. This is not the person with whom he fell in love. She is not all he ever wanted – not anymore. And it causes him to rethink everything – not least of all their future together.
I could tell you that you’re all I’ve ever wanted, dear
I could utter every word you’d ever hope to hear
I shudder when I think that I might not be here forever, forever, forever
And yet he tries to reason his way past his feelings; to choose hope where it appears lost.
All I can think is that it must be a kind of rebellion
To arm your fears like soldiers and slay them
Whose fears are being armed and slayed here, exactly? Her old fears that had kept her inside her shell and prevented her from owning herself and her sexuality? Or his new fears that this girl is not who he thought she was, and that their entire relationship has been built on false pretenses?
Kundera’s story ends ambiguously. Though the male summons compassion from afar and brings himself to comfort his lover through gritted teeth, whether or not their relationship will survive this fateful event remains an open question.
In contrast, TATE’s narrative comes to a grimly optimistic conclusion. “Love is defying.” The song (and its accompanying music video, which, notably, features the male in the role of the hitchhiker), ends on a hopeful note. The couple makes a decision. They slip their wedding bands back onto their fingers, and clasp one another’s hands. The game is over. They will move on from here, together.
Mikel once explained what he means when he says that love is defiant. It has its highs and its lows, but there comes a point where you just have to say, “Fuck it: this person is imperfect, but I’m going to love them anyway.”
It’s a lesson that every couple that wishes to stay together forever must inevitably embrace. Whether the characters in Kundera’s drama ever arrived at that conclusion is anyone’s guess.
Click here to read “The Hitchhiking Game” by Milan Kundera, or view the short film here. The film helps bring the story to life, but it’s hardly a substitute for reading it. Much critical dialog is skipped, so if you want the full story, it must be read.
Glen is the founder and editor of This Is Nowhere. He’s grateful for an understanding wife and kids who indulge his silly compulsion to chase a band all over the Pacific Northwest (and occasionally beyond) every time the opportunity arises.