WHEN IT begins, it will last forever, a universe of two.

And when it ends?

It never ends. There are the memories, of the heroes and the heels, the clowns and class acts, called up by a song, a season, or whatever it takes to make even the bourbon taste bitter in the beginning, even the tears taste sweet in the end.

So when they tell you that love is merely chemical, a fractious combinant of dueling pheronomes, and that that is the reason for the heartsinging glory that begins in a lover's eyes, don't you believe them. Here is a pride of Valentine's Day tales--though with names and certain identifying details changed--that prove that such science is sightless.

Love in Bloomers

The lovers were first cousins. Pat still has a picture of them posing by a tree, her bloomers near her ankles. Bob officially fell for her during the summer of 1931, when she was 15 and he 16. Their backdrop was northern Michigan, on a mile-long island where the pine needles smelled sharp when they walked on them.

When they were 18 and 19, he asked her to a Christmas dance. "What am I going to do?" he sighed to her afterward. "Marry me," she thought. But the next thing she saw of him was his wedding announcement; she herself married six years later. Both families still spent summers at the lake, sharing long dinners at the inn. Once he grabbed her hand coming off the dance floor. "It just never goes away, does it?" he said.

In 1966 her husband died; Bob left his wife and married Pat. "The days just aren't long enough," she said to me once. "When he walks into a room after I've not seen him all day, I still catch my breath."

He died recently. Up until that time, they were as remarkably happy a couple as I've ever seen.

-- Elisabeth Bumiller

Come Live With Me

Dialing the phone, his heart was thumping like sneakers in the dryer. What would he do if she said no? And, more fretful yet, what would he do if she said yes?

It wasn't as though he'd been an enthusiastic Washington bachelor. No, that fabled voluptuary state, so flattering at first, had fast become a grinding chaos of rote lust, strange sheets and red-eyed mornings. A shambles of blandishments held together by hokum and white wine.

Except for her--standing fawn-still, dappled by the twilight through the blinds, one cool and supple hand resting on the doorpost.

But to forswear the ripe carnal promise in a cross-room glance, the prodigal abundance of boozy Hill parties, the old rising gloat when someone would say, "I have a friend I'd like you to meet," the smooth, slow travel of a white-cuffed hand across two feet of candlelight as acquaintance thickened into intimacy? Of course, he knew he was really nothing more than a supply meeting a demand, one pin-striped factor in the algebra of metropolitan mating. But the simple animal aggrandizement of the thing!

Except--why did being near her make him feel as calm as a slow stream over summer stones?

But to shackle his whimsy to another's style! To abide the myriad mute indignities of domestic life, the insult of hairpins, the violation of his private sanctities: shaving amid a glassy rabble of exotic lotions and strange scents, nagged by the whistling whine of a hair dryer; or by night, smothered in ease, gagging in chintz, dreading the first inexorable day when novelty cloys into habit and the very paint on the walls seems a trap.

Maybe he should wait until she got back in town.

Except that somehow she had become the graceful continuo he returned to from the hundred threatened discords of his days.

Then suddenly her voice was coming up on the receiver and his chest was swelling, stretching, trembling like a great crystal bell, and he was saying, I love you, stay with me, live with me.

And it was worth it, more than worth it, worth it all.

Curt Suplee

The Gas Man's Glory

Ralph and Ellen had been friends for a long time. Been to school together. Been through a lot. The friendship ran deep, but she would scold him gently, whenever he forgot her birthday or a holiday, which was often. Ralph was forgetful that way. Except one Valentine's Day.

Shortly before, she had bought a small house on Capitol Hill and found herself experiencing all the headaches of a new homeowner. Hourly, she rued her decision to move out of an apartment. Then, heart sinking, she discovered a gas leak in the kitchen stove. The gas man was promptly summoned -- he turned out to be young and attractive -- and the leak was repaired. Ellen was too distraught to take much notice.

That was what gave Ralph the idea. Before she came home from work that particular Valentine's Day, he left a large box of candy on her doorstep, with a message, "From the gas man." If Ellen was surprised, she gave no sign of it for months, until Ralph missed the next important occasion. It happened to be her birthday. "You're incorrigible," she said to him. "You've forgotten my birthday. You forgot Valentine's Day, too. Even the gas man, a perfect stranger, gave me something for Valentine's Day." Ralph looked repentant and said nothing.

But he continued to forget the dates everyone else remembers. Each time Ellen would sigh, shake her head, and recall that Valentine's Day the gas man left her a box of candy. "If the gas man, a perfect stranger . . ." was the way she chided him. And she usually had to say no more for Ralph to realize that, once again, he had overlooked a significant occasion in her life.

She concluded he didn't have a sentimental bone in his body. "I guess that's just the way I am," he countered lamely. Their friendship continues. But he has never told her who the gas man was and, to this day, she doesn't know.

David Richards

Charley's Uncle --------- There was this college girl whose name was Bolger, and she went around telling all her friends that she was Ray Bolger's niece.

Now, Bolger was at the peak of his singing-dancing career, starring in "Charley's Aunt," just then the hottest, hardest-to-find ticket on Broadway. The girl said she could get free tickets anytime.

The next thing she knew, the whole gang was going to New York for the spring break. Of course they wanted the free tickets. In a panic she wrote to Bolger, who was no relation whatever. "Dear Mr. Bolger, I'm a college student and I've done such a foolish thing, you'd never believe . . . "

She waited. And waited. For three weeks, nothing. She prepared to be exposed as a fraud and spinner of tales.

Then this big brown envelope came in the mail. With a dozen orchestra tickets to "Charley's Aunt." And a glossy photo of Bolger himself. And a message scrawled across it: "Love from Uncle Ray."

This was in March, but never mind. You don't date valentines.

-- Michael Kernan

Innocents Abroad

They knew of each other in the small New England town where they had grown up, but never did meet until that balmy September in London.

Love seems too easy in cities like London, especially for 19-year-olds away from home for the first time. It was their junior year abroad and they inhaled their newly found freedom and love desperately.

Often, they walked through the drizzly London streets; kissed under the Eiffel Tower; got silly drunk at Munich's Oktoberfest, and hitchhiked across Italy. And when the first snow fell over Vienna, they sipped hot spicy wine and pondered the names of children they hoped to have someday.

But as each season of that year faded into the next, the romance eventually gave way. They knew the time simply was not right for them -- yet. One year later they were back in the states, the memories of a first love safely sandwiched between the heavy covers of photo albums.

They saw each other rarely over the following years and spoke even less. In fact, at times they were resentful, as young lovers often get, that they had ever cared so deeply and selflessly. They both landed in Washington after graduation. It was law school for him and graduate school for her.

One windy day last spring, she jumped off a bus downtown and walked right into him. They laughed awkwardly, traded gossip like stamp collectors and finally agreed to meet for dinner.

Dinner came near the end of a sticky July. They giggled over candlelight at one of Washington's fancy restaurants, held hands and danced to old songs. Good memories flowed with expensive wines, and any recollections of sorrow were forgotten. He kissed her good night.

Later that night, she dusted off the heavy photo album. The innocent and milky faces had aged in those nine years, as had the brittle snapshots. Nothing compares with first love--especially the first lover rediscovered. She leafed through London, Paris, Rome and Vienna until the summer sun rose over the Capitol, and she cried.

Lois Romano

A Saint for Burma

When we were kids we brought shoe boxes to school on Valentine's Day. The boxes were wrapped in gaudy colors by our mothers and had slits in the top for deposit of our mash notes, stuff like "I go overboard for you." This was at St. Pat's grammar school in Kankakee, Ill., in the woozy amber of the early '50s. I was overboard for Burma Matthews, who I think had red hair and several older hefty brothers. I was about 7. What I chiefly remember about Burma was that she once told me that her parents had named all their kids after various characters in the "Terry and the Pirates" comic strip.

One year Sister Marie of the Crucifixion bulbed with an idea: Everybody should come to school in costume on Valentine's Day. I went home and told my mother, who said that since Valentine's Day was really the commemoration of a saint's day, I should garb as one of my favorite saints. "How about St. Francis of Assisi?" I said. (I liked him because he talked to birds.) My mother set to work with brown fabric and rope and pretty soon I had a religious habit, complete with skullcap and clothesline cincture belt. There is still extant somewhere an absurd picture of me standing scrubbed and pious on our front step in my holy get-up, hands folded (as if for communion), thumbs crossed, eyes down. I was a budding contemplative. My mother took the picture and then I set off to school with my valentines box with the slit in the top. I couldn't wait for ol' Burma to get a load of me.

She did, all right. And roared. All the other second-graders were worldly enough to come to school as the Lone Ranger or Roy Rogers or Dale Evans or Batman or Dick Tracy. Burma, in fact, had come as a saucy character out of "Terry and the Pirates." I was the butt of the day. The day seemed never to end. My classmates avoided my slit like there were snakes in it and only Sister Marie of the Crucifixion admired my getup. I went home in total dejection.

Ever since I have had rueful knowing irony for an old expression: You're ugly and your mother dresses you funny.

Paul Hendrickson

Gourmet Relationship

Here we have a highly spiced 11-course love story:

1. They meet at brunch one cold winter morning among a group of people who are hung over, tired and strangely relaxed. He is breaking up with his girlfriend over eggs Benedict and the other half of the table has been warned to diplomatically ignore whatever negotiations are transpiring.

But she is sitting next to him and at one point their eyes meet and lock for a few seconds longer than is normally expected between strangers at brunch.

2. It is spring now, and they run into each other at Yummy Yogurt. They discuss the opening day baseball game each is attending -- --with someone else.

3. In July, they meet again in a group at the Szechuan restaurant. Across the table of 10, he says she looks wonderful. She blushes. They sit scrunched up in a crowded car on the way home.

4. They arrange to meet over a dinner of pork and fried bananas and paella at El Caribe. He gulps margueritas, she, gin and tonics. Afterward he gives her his jacket, because she is cold. They go to Millie and Al's for drinks. The jukebox plays, and the giant TV screen silently replays that morning's Royal Wedding of Diana and Charles, who walk down the aisle to a background of disco music.

5. They go to Baltimore for a baseball game and Little Italy for fettuccine Alfredo. A few days later, it's back to the Szechuan with another group. They hold hands under the table, feed each other Szechuan scallops and look longingly into each other's eyes. She loses her appetite and picks at her food. The rest of the table diplomatically ignores them, interrupting only to announce what they owe for the check.

6. She goes on vacation in late summer and returns to intense discussions about their lives and where they are going. He likes her, he says, but He's Scared. They discuss it over take-out Szechuan bon bon chicken. They debate whether or not the amount of Chinese food they have consumed is out of proportion with the length of the relationship.

7. They go to Nora's, and he attempts to catapult a spoon of whipped cream from the dessert into her mouth across the table. He misses and hits her lip and chin. They laugh hysterically and drink some more.

8. They go to Loeb's for lunch and discuss The Relationship. Now, he's beginning to lose his appetite.

9. They drive off to Arlington for Afghan food at the Kabul Caravan. There are problems, but they resolve to dwell less on the problems and more on the aushak.

10. Drinking steaming Irish coffee at the Charing Cross in Georgetown one Sunday evening, he tells her he's still not over the girlfriend he supposedly broke up with over the eggs Benedict nine months ago.

11. Alas, the relationship, forged over the foods of the world, has badly deteriorated. She's furious at him for getting back with the Old Girlfriend. He's furious at her for being furious at him. They arrange to meet at the Foundry Restaurant in Georgetown. "Is this place okay?" she asks upon arrival. "Sure," he says. "This looks like a good place to have our fight."

Neither has much of an appetite, but both have a great argument.

Carla Hall

I Kept My Promise . . .

A Love Story:

Valerie Perri, the star of "Evita," which recently ended a five-month run here, is married to Dan Perri, who designs titles for movies like "All the President's Men" and "The Exorcist." They met four years ago when she was working at a Chevrolet dealership; she sold a car to a friend of his and they were fixed up on a blind date.

Six weeks later they got married, in their home, by a Reform rabbi who arrived in a van with rock music blasting from the windows. A year later they got married again. A while after that, they did it again, and again and again -- six times altogether. The most recent wedding was two weeks ago in a rabbi's home in Bethesda; they videotaped that one so they can watch it when they want to.

Their second wedding was in the Sistine Chapel with the same rabbi who conducted the first ceremony as tourists milled around oblivious. Since she is Jewish and he is Catholic, they thought this was a perfect set-up, a rabbi in the Sistine Chapel.

Their third wedding was in Las Vegas. "We wanted to see what one of those wedding chapels was like," she said. "It was just like you'd expect. Really cheesy." Their fourth wedding was in New York at City Hall; it is the only ceremony aside from the first one that is legal. The others are called a "reaffirmation of vows."

Their fifth wedding was in Newport Beach, the closest city hall they could find to Laguna Beach, "where we first romantically lingered." They have certificates from each ceremony (the one from the Sistine Chapel is a reproduction of the part of the ceiling they stood under) framed and hanging on the wall.

"We find it is a kind of rekindling of our romance, getting back to the basics of caring and sharing, and letting the other one know you love them," she said.

Today is also a special day for them, as you might expect of such dedicated romantics. He makes a valentine for her. Last year he made a heart-shaped building six inches deep, with the front designed to look like a proscenium stage. There were a series of curtains with messages behind them, and a tape recorder fastened underneath delivered music and romantic phrases as each curtain was raised.

This year he started with a box he found at the Smithsonian, which he was planning to develop into some sort of three-dimensional heart with valves. "I don't know quite what I'll do yet," he said. "But I know I'll think of something."

Megan Rosenfeld

The Perpetual Admirer

Every Feb. 14 it arrives, shot through the mail slot like a subpoena.

The envelope is always white, long and stiff. Inside is a card. A Valentine's Day card.

The ritual began during college. In those days, the card would sit in the dusty bowels of my mailbox in the basement of the main building. While my friends anxiously twirled the combination locks, peering through the little glass window at the 50-cent greetings from home-town boyfriends, ex-lovers and soon-to-be-suitors, I waited. When no one was looking, I opened the box, grabbed the card and stuffed it in my book bag.

"Who's that from?" my roommate would say.

I couldn't answer. It was too painful. "A secret admirer," I would laugh.

Over the years, the cards displayed the ever-changing fads and tastes in American greetings. Studio cards with fat, squat men mouthing wisecracks about love and romance and Take My Valentine, Please!

Then there was the Victorian back-to-basic lace year, the year of the Kliban cat, the year of the Peanuts and, most recently, the year of the preppy. It was not an exercise in originality, rather in timing. It was important that the card arrive on Valentine's Day, not the day before or the day after.

Is my heart so fragile that it would shatter into tiny splinters if I didn't receive a valentine?

My mother doesn't want to find out.

Stephanie Mansfield

In Sickness and in Health

Seeing Smittie was never easy for me. There was too much to forget, and I was not feeling at all optimistic. But everything about the place, the sagacious doctor, the sharply trimmed nurses, the order and efficiency, gave me unexpected confidence -- and left me completely unprepared for what I encountered.

Her beautiful blond hair spilled out on the pillow, exactly as I had expected, yet in spite of that, I felt my smile becoming an uncertain grimace as I approached her bed. Her skin was taut over her cheekbones, the same cheekbones that had taken her straight through the impenetrable doors of the model agency. When she blinked awake and said, "Hi, stranger," I could see every muscle in her face move.

I was speechless, unable to do anything but stare.

"Did you just get here?" she whispered. As she struggled to sit up, the sheet slipped, exposing a transfusion needle taped to her painfully bruised arm. A nearly translucent, blue-veined hand darted out and covered it up.

Her gaze flicked across the candy I had brought and back up to me.

"Here," I stammered, "I . . . I brought you a Valentine."

"You're so sweet," she said, lying back down. Her voice was flat, defeated. "You always were the sweetest one."

I placed the box next to her on the pillow, and, reacting to it with revulsion, she rolled her head away. "Please," she said. "Please take it away. Give it to the nurses."

Even so, I couldn't help but snap at her. "Why? Don't you like it?" She merely looked at me. I picked it up angrily and said, "I'll feed the stupid candy to the dog."

Smittie began shaking her head. "You don't understand," she moaned. "No one understands. I can't eat. I won't let myself eat. I'll get too fat."

"You've never been a pound overweight in your life," I exclaimed. I sat down on the edge of the bed, wanting very much to comfort her but afraid of what I might say if I started talking. When I put my arms around her, she felt barely alive.

"I'm so skinny," she said. "I haven't had anything but coffee and cigarettes for seven months and I still have cellulite." Minutes passed before she added, softly, "The doctor told me he couldn't help me anymore if I wouldn't help myself."

We sat together for a long time with her head resting on my shoulder. I searched for a way to make her anorexia go away -- an adept phase, a reassuring gesture, a gentle touch -- things I knew perfectly well wouldn't do any good. There were so many people who cared about her, who'd have done anything to help her. Most, including her doctor, had given up. Still, I knew she didn't want to die. But how could I get her to admit it?

She must have read my thoughts -- maybe I had blurted them out -- because when the night nurse came in to throw me out, Smittie asked me to come back the next day.

I told her I would, and the next and the next day after that. "Until you're sick of me all over again."

The night nurse cleared her throat. I walked over to retrieve the box of candy from the corner where in my frustration I had thrown it. "I'm waiting," the nurse said. Looking at her for the first time, I noticed her cap was crooked and her shoes were worn down on the sides.

"Would you do me a favor?" Smittie called to me. I looked back at her. "Would you leave my Valentine?"

I placed the heart-shaped box on the stand beside her and she reached out and stroked its red satin. "You will come back, won't you?" she asked, and when I nodded, she smiled the clearest, driest smile I had ever seen.

Howard Smead

A Love Not Meant To Be

She was lithe and, well, a pretty little thing. There were her big eyes and red, curly hair, and the high cheekbones which her father said were the family characteristic. "Good bone structure," he would say. The boys liked her, she knew, from second grade. She enjoyed a certain prominence, the kind that builds confidence--lifeblood itself on the pubescent battleground of 14-year-old self-esteem.

He was well-built, she thought. With dark hair that shone like new mink, slicked back in perfect ducktails. He had a black leather jacket with silver studs on the sleeves. There was the lingering smell about him of Brylcreem, mixed with illicit cigarettes. His hands were rough and she wondered how he kept such a tan, almost year round. In civics class, he would slump down in his desk and pretend he was asleep. He was, she knew, a hood.

They got acquainted because their lockers were next to each other in lower hall, the space reserved for ninth grade. He was polite and friendly, and she was pleased to feel that she was bringing out the best in him, after all.

She was not totally surprised when he asked her to the formal dance at mid-year. She would be delighted to be his date, she told him demurely. Pragmatically, she told herself he would be a rather handsome-looking fellow for her first dress-up date. He in a sport coat, she in a long, beautiful dress . . .

Her mother bought the most fabulous blue gown, waltz-length, with gentle folds that fell off her shoulders and had rhinestones hand-sewn onto the top. There were white satin shoes and even a little white fur cape, which she tried on about 20 times to make sure everything fit.

The night of the dance she took a long soak bath, washed her hair and, with her mother's special assistance, dabbed on just the lightest bit of mascara and cheek color and lipstick. She put on her underthings. So carefully, the stockings. Then the dress. Then the shoes and the fur, for final effect. And she waited. She began to wonder if, somehow, she had misundertood. But the boy never showed up.

She never spoke to him again, anyway. And she also never wore the dress again. It became, after a few days, like it had never happened and like she had never known him.

Twenty years later, the girl and her therapist hit on that incident during a session. He suggested that perhaps the boy had not owned a sport coat. She nodded and said, "Maybe so." To herself, though, she just repeated, "Gerald Partain. You creep. Why did you stand me up on my very first date?"

Sandy Kyle Bain