In March of 1974, John Lennon stumbled into Los Angeles’s iconic club the Troubadour. He was belligerent after drinking Brandy Alexanders all night. He kicked a valet and got in a fistfight, before getting tossed out. A month later, he appeared at a concert with a sanitary napkin affixed to his head. He would later affectionately call this period his “lost weekend” — the eighteen months during which he and Yoko Ono lived apart. He shacked up with another woman, May Pang, and was largely unmoored, boozy-breathed, violent, and lonely.
I knew about the lost weekend through romantic celebrity man lore, but only once I experienced a lost weekend of my own did it occur to me to wonder what Yoko had done in John’s absence. During the last half-hour of a thirteen-hour road trip, my husband nervously announced he “wasn’t sure about family life,” which was his way of saying that he wasn’t sure about me. He didn’t want to end things, he said, but he didn’t know what he wanted. I told him that I had sympathy for him, but that he should get the hell out of our apartment.
We had been married for five years, together for ten, and were in our early 30s. I had felt his restlessness slithering through our relationship since we had moved to California a year earlier. I had just written a book that questioned the very idea of marriage, so at some level I had it coming. I worried that my book had set a chain of events in motion that I could no longer control, that I, like John, had destroyed my spouse with my art. My husband started drinking a lot and staying out late with friends. He had recently left his job for a month to travel with asylum seekers through Mexico, riding on the tops of trains. I couldn’t tell if he was falling apart or more fully becoming himself — or both, simultaneously.
When I thought about the lost weekend, I had always imagined that John had left Yoko, but it turns out it was Yoko who had told John to leave and she who had suggested the relationship with Pang. “It was like being sent to the desert,” John said of that time. “I was on a raft alone in the middle of the universe.”
Before the lost weekend, John and Yoko had been together for five years and had hardly spent a minute apart. John was even known to follow her to the bathroom. But they were one of the most hated couples in America. The year before they split in 1973, the LP Some Time in New York City had bombed. Critics said his career was over.
To make matters worse, he was the midst of a deportation battle with the INS. Yoko was blamed for the Beatles’ demise and endured a series of sexist and racist media assaults, including an Esquire article titled “John Rennon’s Excrusive Gloupie.” She was locked in a legal battle for custody of her daughter. The night that George McGovern lost to Richard Nixon, John got drunk and fucked another woman while Yoko sat in the other room and could hear the whole thing. His drinking had gotten out of control. Well, if he can do this, forget it! Yoko thought. “I needed a rest. I needed space,” she later said. Sometimes a girl needs to piss alone.
But it was also a preventative measure. “I started to notice that he became a little restless,” she said. Telling someone to leave feels better than being left, a sharp break preferable to creeping decay. “She wanted him to revisit life without her and see how he liked it,” Yoko Ono’s biographers Nell Beram and Carolyn Boriss-Krimsky wrote.
I wanted my husband to exorcise his uncertainty, to see what life was like without me — and mostly I hoped that life would suck. “Leave them alone, and they’ll come home, their tails wagging behind them,” my mother-in-law counseled. This comment comforted me — men were just distractible puppies! But, of course, it’s a gender trope that saddles women with the responsibility for long-term planning without the power to determine the outcome. The men just get to be. John didn’t have to decide anything — he just drunkenly rode Yoko’s wave.
With John gone, Yoko could focus on her work. She produced a solo album, including the tracks “Feeling the Space,” “Growing Pain,” “She Hits Back,” and “Woman Power.” In “If Only,” Yoko’s voice is both strong and quivering: “I cut my finger when you left the room / The wound has healed since then / But the wound keeps bleeding for reasons unknown to me.” But also: “She left her man / She left her children because she knows she only has one life to live.”
With my husband gone, my apartment became both a refuge and a mausoleum. I didn’t have to look at his beard hairs in our sink anymore, but I found myself missing them. I didn’t have to worry that there were too many whiskey and beer bottles in the recycling, but I knew they were amassing elsewhere. I didn’t have to wonder when he was coming home, because he wasn’t.
The chapter in Yoko’s authorized biography about the lost weekend is called “Real Life.” Shorn of comprehensible linear narratives about my direction, I suddenly found myself thinking, Oh, this is real life. Like a nearsighted person, my vision was compressed to the extreme foreground. “Do you have a plan?” friends asked. I did not. All I could see was the next day’s breakfast, my commute to work, dinner, then sleep.
Some part of me savored this liminal space. It rained hard in the weeks after my husband left, and the Berkeley Hills looked greener than the year before. Pain had piqued my awareness of the world. A friend’s husband descended into a manic state. He poured glitter over his body and left her and their children. He exploded their lives. “I am so fully myself,” she said, with a sort of heartbroken but self-admiring wonder.
The lost weekend ended for John and Yoko when he performed “Whatever Gets You Thru the Night” with Elton John at Madison Square Garden. Though John didn’t know it, Yoko was in the audience. The crowd went wild, but she saw something else. “It hit me that he was a very lonely person up onstage there,” she said. “And he needed me. It was like my soul suddenly saw his soul. So I went backstage.”
They hadn’t seen each other in a year and were dumbstruck by the sight. They began dating again, and about a year later, Sean was born. “I feel higher than the Empire State Building,” John would later say. “We were finally unselfish enough to want to have a child.” He became a self-professed “house husband,” baking bread and caring for Sean while Yoko handled his business in smoky rooms full of men in suits. John’s relief at their reunion was palpable. In a 1980 Playboy interview, he said, “She's taught me everything I fucking know. She was there when I was nowhere, when I was the nowhere man.” Yoko was the self-sufficient one, he said. “She doesn't need me."
Time is the simplest metric of marital success. The other measures — joy, love, and fulfillment — are too unwieldy. But by retroactively compressing eighteen months into a “weekend,” John was doing what mortals cannot. He believed this was just a blip in a long marriage. But of course, five years after their reunion, on the same day he took those pictures clinging nude to Yoko, he was shot dead in front of the Dakota while Yoko watched.
Calling it a lost weekend was also an attempt to restore order to their love story, to minimize their separation to a hazy digression, something that happened beyond the frame. But as every long-partnered person knows, there is no linear narrative; everything happens beyond the frame. Yoko would later claim that she always knew John would come back, but that’s something you can say only in retrospect.
The problem with lost weekends is that they look a lot like breakups. I’m still trying to figure out which mine is. My husband is renting a room in West Oakland. I’m staying in our apartment. When he came over for coffee the other day, he looked bedraggled. His beard had crossed over some line from hipster to hermit. As we made the coffee together, it occurred to me that it was good to have him there to hand me things, to hear the sound of his voice. But I was relieved when he left. There is, almost certainly, more pain in our future. Under such circumstances, there’s only one option: as Yoko wrote, “Angry young woman, there’s no way back, so just keep walking.”
Laura Smith’s writing has appeared in the New York Times, Slate, and Mother Jones. She worked on her memoir, The Art of Vanishing (Viking; On Sale 2/6/18), while on a fellowship at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity and lives in Oakland, California.