EACH PLACE SETTING HERE at Table 9 features a delicious-looking bowl of gazpacho adorned with a celery stalk. But we all know we're not supposed to eat it yet. We are well-schooled in wedding etiquette.

Not that this wedding promises to follow the lines of your typical big-production number: receiving line, drinks, TA-DUM, intro bride, intro groom, TA-DUM, intro wedding party, TA-DUM, first dance, dance with in-laws, cut the cake, throw the bouquet, TA-DUM.

This wedding is different. For one thing, the bride and groom are grown-ups. In their late forties, I'd guess. I don't know them; these are my husband's friends. Like a few other people I've met here at Table 9, I'm just "a spouse." This is how I said it. Because this is how the other spouses said it when we went around the table announcing who was who.

What kind of lessons about marriage do you get at a wedding? That's what I'm wondering. I once went to a wedding at an amusement park where the bride and groom got married on a roller coaster. That was kind of scary, if you think of the wedding ceremony as a metaphor for the marriage. One wedding I missed a few years ago featured the bride and groom walking naked up the aisle. Well, her body was adorned with temporary tattoos. I don't know what kind of lesson I would have gotten there.

This ceremony is simple and brief. A few poems are said. The vows are exchanged. And the most passionate kiss. It melts you, watching that kiss. It puts a hush over the crowd. We don't even care about getting to our gazpacho anymore.

There's something authentic about this union. Maybe it's because you know these aren't just two kids hoping to please their parents, hoping to impress their friends, hoping to fulfill some fantasy of babies and the happily-ever-after vacation home. These are two people who have had their knocks, who have found each other, who are joining together in a mutual desire for love and companionship, the most fundamental desire there is.

The end of the ceremony signals the beginning of gazpacho-eating time, and so we here at Table 9 begin sipping in silence.

"Well, we're going to be doing this in a few months," the man next to Alex says.

"This?" Alex says.

"Get . . . married," the man says, as if the word is still too big for him to say. Oh, how I remember that stage. Oh, how wonderful it feels to be a veteran of the M-thing.

"Congratulations," Alex says. "We got married two years ago. It was the best thing we ever did." He looks at me, making sure he got that right. I smile and nod.

"We did it 20 years ago," says a woman a few seats away. "So far, so good." Her husband, sitting to my left, smiles and nods.

There is a collective happiness here at Table 9 about the institution of marriage. It feels good. It feels like the right way to witness someone else's nuptials.

"So tell me something," the spouse to my left says to the group. "I'm looking for a metaphor. For marriage. My wife didn't like the last one I came up with."

Which was? "Well, I told her that I felt being married was like having an alien attached to you with really long tentacles reaching into your brain."

Ouch. (We can't help but wonder what the context of that comment was.) And isn't this just like a marriage? You're feeling great and then the husband comes out with something totally weird.

"Okay," my husband offers. "You might want to soften that alien thing. Maybe instead of an alien invasion, you could think of marriage more as . . . a heart transplant. A piece of her giving life to you."

I look at him. A heart transplant? That's what he thinks this marriage is? He's walking around with my heart in him? Then what does that make me? "That makes me . . . dead," I say.

"Right," the engaged woman says. "So actually marriage is more like a kidney transplant. You have two of them, one to spare, so if you give one up you can . . .

"A kidney transplant?" This is her fiance talking. "That's what you think we're doing here? Donating organs?" You can tell he's coming into this conversation late.

"Okay, I think we should get off organ donation," the first man says. "See, this is why I thought of the alien. It doesn't have to be an evil alien, or even an aggressive alien . . ."

Thankfully, as if sent from the marriage angels above, the bride and groom show up at Table 9 for kisses and hugs. We stand and congratulate them, wish them well. We don't need to take a formal vote to know not to ask them the metaphor question.

They move on to Table 10, and we all sit in silence. We pass rolls. We pass butter.

Finally, the wife accused of being an alien invader offers a lesson we can all agree on: "In marriage," she says, "you should keep your metaphors to yourself."

Jeanne Marie Laskas's e-mail address is laskasmail@aol.com.