The man walks up to the counter in front of me holding a $10 chocolate heart in a square wooden box. As I--a victim of my passion for truffles --wait to pay dearly for my indulgence, he issues crisp instructions for inscribing the heart in frosting letters to his wife.

There is something about his manner that I find oddly perfunctory, even chilling. Maybe it's an air of efficiency, or indifference. Here is a man, I think, on a chocolate-heart chore. Here is a man who has come in to perform some rhythmic ritual imposed by the calendar. Ah yes, Valentine's Day. Cross the heart off the shopping list.

I don't know a thing about this man, except for his age, middle, and his status, married, and his income, comfortable. For all I know he may regard this holiday as some merchandising scheme from the legions of florists, card sellers and candy makers.

But it strikes me in this store full of chocolate hearts and chocolate letters and chocolate cupids that this man is just doing his duty. As he Master-Charges this heart and files it into his briefcase, I feel I've witnessed a scene of romance turned into routine. I'm reminded of how easily love can deteriorate into obligations. It is so easy to stop paying personal attention.

I don't think this occurs to most of us when we are young. The Valentine's Days of our youth are a confusion of romance and anxiety. It's hard sometimes to know the difference.

In grammar school, nervous messages about our own acceptability pass through the school post office. Would she give him a penny valentine, right from the bag, while he favored her with a large one? Would he laugh if she sent him a card with the word "love" on it? What if she got no cards at all?

Throughout most of our first adolescent romances, we relay our feelings, like drumbeats, through a chain of friends, waiting for the right signals to come back. There isn't a chance that we'll neglect relationships then. Rather, we are obsessed with them.

Most love affairs, at any age, begin with this intensity, the intensity that comes in part from uncertainty and insecurity. We travel slowly through stages of knowing each other, accepting each other, choosing each other.

We don't know that the real tests of commitment come later. They come when caring is pitted against routine, dailiness, abstraction. When love is matched against dishes, work, bills, children.

It's not possible, it's not even desirable, to live in a permanent state of infatuation. We don't want forever to be striving for affection, showering our partners with flowers every Saturday, champagne for breakfast.

There is something in nearly every set of lovers that longs eventually for ordinariness. Affection also feeds on routines. We build up the inventory of a new relationship with days of comfortable companionship. A sense of commitment can grow with the shared enterprise of those same dishes, work, bills, children.

A friend of mine tells me that the sexiest thing her husband did last week was take her turn at the midnight feeding.

But there are centrifugal forces in any life. It's almost inevitable at times to start putting tasks first and saving relationships, like dessert, for last. Comfort and security also allows room for neglect.

I think that it's easy to lose track of what's at the center of any life together, the glue that holds things together: listening, talking, touching, caring, attention. The willingness--the will--to stop everything else and focus on another person.

Maybe I'm wrong about the man with the chocolate heart in his briefcase. Maybe he is uninterested in valentines, but interested in his mate. I'll root for that.

Few of us want to be reduced in our lives to an annual rite. Few of us want to become an obligation instead of a pleasure.

A national holiday, a day of observance for romance, is fine. But love, like dishes, requires daily doing. Instead of paying homage, longtime love is supported on an installment plan. Those who want to keep it pay in a different coin.

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