The writers Edmund White and Michael Carroll said, "We have not discussed it. We are not big on discussion. Everything is a tacit discussion."
Such was their first response to the suggestion that White's having suffered a stroke may have upset their seventeen year partnership, enduring companionship, and deep affection for each other - a mutual devotion that rings clearly between the lines of their description of the medical emergency and its aftermath.
White and Carroll, in Key West for their annual January visit, had just returned from nearby men's resort Island House where they engaged the popular poolside services of the guesthouse masseur. Relaxed, they described White's stroke and its alteration of their daily routine. (White did become excited when he later spoke about the immediate success of his newly published Jack Holmes and His Friend, which ushered in a lively discussion about extraordinary penises, glory holes and categories of sexual fantasy. Read on.)
The stroke suffered by White overtook him two days after last Thanksgiving, at the home of a friend in Providence, Rhode Island. He describes the harrowing experience calmly. "I awoke from a nap and I could not walk. I had lost my sense of balance. I could understand speech, but I myself could not speak. My friend called an ambulance. Within a few minutes, my ability to speak began to return. I sent a garbled message to Michael who was in New York City. He jumped on the train and then rented a car. Firemen arrived and discovered they couldn't get the stretcher up the stairs of the house. With an oxygen feed, I had to walk - wobbling into the walls - to the ambulance.
"There is a miracle injection that reverses the effects of a stroke if taken within the first half hour. I got to the hospital too late for that. The doctors determined that my brain was not hemorrhaging, but they admitted me."
The initial effect of the stroke on Michael Carroll was his sudden need to drive a car. In many couples, there is one natural navigator and one willing passenger. In this relationship neither man is the obvious helmsman, but Carroll willingly took the wheel despite lack of practice due to their residing in Manhattan where cars are ridiculous. He also got cell phones for both of them, having suddenly changed his opinion about their value.
He describes the two months following his partner's stroke as a time requiring his constant vigilance. "I do not know how a man who lives alone can survive a stroke like the one Ed had unless he spends a fortune on care-givers. You have to be extremely attentive at all times of the day. In addition to preparing meals, I had to respond to the many people who contacted Ed with a 'Why haven't we heard from you?' message. And then there are those who say they will come over to help but they don't. And those who say they will come over and bring food, but they arrive with nothing. Also, I have to check his blood pressure frequently. I need to pay attention to everything he eats. I need to cook carefully and make careful decisions about everything that goes into the refrigerator. I was always more of the household manager and never the cook, but Ed, who loves to cook, was more the food shopper - and a very extravagant food shopper. If he saw something he liked at the moment, like caviar, it would go into the cart. I am now in charge of the fridge."
White adds, "It's true. I was always the cook. Now Michael is the cook and this is good for me. I never think about dieting, and the process of giving myself a treat with food has changed. I no longer expend energy on that. Michael takes care of that. I have been losing weight steadily. Last year, before the stroke, I weighed 320 pounds at my heaviest. I am now at 270 pounds and still have a lot more to lose."
White is quick to praise his partner's newly evolved cooking skills. He says, "I love the ginger and spices he uses. He is very inventive. I cooked French, very heavy on the butter. Still, I do look forward to being able to walk around the corner to Gristede's to do the grocery shopping and to free up Michael."
December was difficult for the couple. Carroll, more of a homebody who will write sometimes late at night, had to set aside his personal routines entirely. White, who loves to socialize, required a walker for the first two weeks and became housebound except for the keeping of many appointments with six different doctors. There were regular exercise and physical therapy sessions to attend. Both men recall a particularly depressing day when Ed, at a street corner with his walker, tried unsuccessfully to hail a taxi at 4PM in the rain, an Olympic event for any New Yorker.
Carroll says that he was surprised that White was able to stop being a total workhorse and was willing to be compliant. Both men noted that White had experience upon which to draw. He had been caregiver to a partner who had died from AIDS. White says, "I have no problem with dependence. I'm a big baby and I love being taken care of."
White is happy with the reception of his new book, Jack Holmes And His Friend, which may be his biggest success since his 1982 A Boy's Own Story. The book details the friendship shared by a straight man with a gay man. Speaking about the book, White's hearty laughter and clearly voiced humorous wit gave evidence of strong recovery from his stroke.
Mention of the large physical endowment of the book's central character caused speculation about whether one could be attracted to a spectacular penis viewed through a glory hole and visually disembodied. White states that while he could appreciate that sight, he is more the type to reach through the hole to explore the body attached to the praiseworthy penis. Immediately off to the races on the subject of fetishism, sexual detachment and fantasy, White concluded, before returning to the subject at hand, with the proposition that men are of two varieties: those who masturbate thinking about good sex they have had, and those who think about sex they have never had. He says he is of the former category by dint of his legendarily extensive experience. Anyone worried that the stroke may have dulled him would have been reassured by the pace of his merriment and quick wit throughout this perusal.
Has the stroke significantly altered the relationship of Michael Carroll and Edmund White? Probably not. The men derive satisfaction and enjoyment from delivering and receiving attention and support from each other. White says, "Michael is very sweet and he said 'You've taken care of me for years and now I want to do the same for you.'"
(A version of this report, with links for purchasing Edmund White's new book, is featured on the cover of 10thousandcouples.com.)