WHEN Chris S. walked into his home on Feb. 14 last year, he discovered his wife had created a holiday-perfect scene: Candles glowed on the table, and dinner was waiting.
But all Chris could see was disaster. It was Valentine's Day - and he was red-faced and empty-handed.
Until he walked in the door, Chris had been confident of his approach to this sentimental day. "We had an agreement that we wouldn't do anything on the small holidays!" he later recalled, groaning.
His wife, of course, could remember no such agreement. In fact, in addition to conjuring up a nice dinner, Karen had hand-painted his Valentine's Day card. But she was charitable: "He had good intentions," she says. "It's just that his execution stinks."
Like many guys in the run up to this day of hearts and roses, Chris had misjudged his true love's expectations.
It was AD 270 that this tradition began: The soon-to-be-martyred St. Valentine signed a farewell note to the daughter of his jailer, "from your Valentine."
That set a standard most men could meet. But then, in the 15th century, Emperor Maximilian of Austria stepped into the fray. He was the first to give a diamond rock to his intended.
Ever since, men have been put on the spot when it comes to the annual public expression of their devotion to a member of the "fairer sex."
And with good reason. This Hallmark holiday - heralded by everything from singing hearts to chocolate tennis racquets - may be designed to celebrate love, but it also raises that age-old suspicion that men plan too little, and women anticipate just a bit too much.
As a result, the guys often come out looking - well, deficient.
"Women are always planning way ahead and guys are always scrambling," observes Kevin Kennedy, a twentysomething Valentine's veteran. "They end up paying top dollar for 1-800-FLOWERS or something."
Not all men, of course, are clumsy clods on Cupid's busiest day. Many take on the high-pressure event with all the determination they might use in a 98-yard football drive.
Take Eric, half of a bubbly duo walking arm in arm through a local mall. Unable to wait till Feb. 14, he started celebrating Valentine's Day two weeks ago. "She was going to surprise me early, so I beat her to it," Eric says proudly.
Flowers arrived at Stacey's work on Feb. 2. Next on the agenda was dancing at Zanzibar, a local hot spot, on Feb. 3, and homemade cake awaited her at the end of the evening.
Of course, Eric had a distinct advantage. "It helps take the pressure off when you're engaged," Stacey exults, nearly jumping up and down as she flashes her ring.
But lest battle-hardened lonelyhearts think youthful love is the key, consider George and Sue Brownell of Brevard, N.C. Married in 1937 (you do the math), they're still so excited about matrimony that they've begun leading marriage workshops with the Association for Couples in Marriage Enrichment in Winston-Salem, N.C.
Mrs. Brownell claims - believe it or not - that some of their best Valentine's Days came when their children were still at home. "We used to give each other a 24-hour day," she recalls. They hired a baby sitter, left town, and exchanged "the gift of time."
Of the pressures of Valentine's Day, Brownell says: "We've responded by thumbing our nose at it. We'll celebrate how we want to."
But for the less confident, the procrastinators, or the just plain passionately challenged, some 11th-hour fancy footwork can pay off - although it may cost:
* Tiffany & Co. offers everything from a heart-shaped diamond solitaire ring for $117,500 - it's five carats set in platinum - to a sterling-silver picture frame for $110. For added brownie points, Tiffany says it can engrave in about two hours.
* For those who must resort to chocolates, Godiva will put whatever you want - from special truffles to raspberry starfish - in a heart-shaped, red-velvet box. The 48-piece collection is a mere $75.
* And for those who think they're in love but aren't ready to go out on a limb, there's always Rent-a-Center. Four-carat diamonds are $29.99 a week, and 0.4-carat "diamond chip" rings run just $8.99 for a seven-day test drive.
By the way, those big-screen TVs - maybe you can convince her they're romantic - are just $43 a week.
But don't rush out without listening to advice from some experts: the ever-expectant women themselves.
Asked what their Valentine should do if he has just two hours left to prepare, several twenty-something Boston women were quick to come to consensus: Avoid the "the inbred instinct to give flowers and chocolate."
If it has to be flowers, one chimes in, "at least do something original like tulips."
"Roses are so generic, they're almost an insult," they all agree.
Instead, get creative. Tailor the gift to the individual woman's interests. Heather C., for instance, was an art-history major in college.
"You know what I'd love? A book about love and art," she muses, envisioning a volume of romantic masterpieces.
But she confesses she doesn't expect her current boyfriend to be so inspired. "That will only happen if I meet some miracle guy."
Men, here's your chance.
If You Do Slip Up, Make Sure To Offer a Creative Excuse
IF Cupid's quivers haven't filled your heart this Valentine's season, you may not be alone. More than 1 in 4 married couples don't expect to give or receive any gifts on Feb. 14, according to a new Gallup poll.
But if you're planning to give, be sure to match the expectations of the recipient. Here are a few poll-derived tips:
Of those married couples planning to celebrate with gifts, 54 percent say they'll spend less than $40. Just 18 percent say they'll spend more than $100.
Although flowers, candy, and jewelry are still the most-desired gifts, many people think bigger. Money, a car, or a vacation are on many peoples' lists.
But just in case you think this might be the year to get away with giving no gifts, beware those gender-mismatched expectations: 68 percent of women said they want to receive at least one gift; 49 percent of men said the same.
Despite all the advance warning, however, if you suddenly realize your expectations were lower than your sweetheart's, be sure to avoid the following excuses. You can be sure he or she has heard them all before:
*"There weren't any cards special enough for you."
*"I mailed the wrong package at the post office."
*"The expiration date on the chocolate was yesterday, and I just couldn't do that to you."
*"You told me I shouldn't get you anything."
*"The florist only had roses and you don't deserve such a generic gift."
*"It's Valentine's Day?"