Miles apart, except in their hearts

Had he not left the Halloween party early or had she not given into her friends' pleas to hit one more bar, it's unclear how Daniel Bujas and Aline Fernandes might have met.

As it happened, late that October night in 2008, Bujas was waiting on the Damen Blue Line "L" platform, dressed in a Ferrari Formula One fire suit, when he heard a group of women chanting in a language he didn't understand, but for two words: "Felipe Massa."

Bujas, at the time a 26-year-old law student, was excited that someone finally recognized his costume as the Brazilian race car driver, so he approached the women, who were excited to see a symbol from home. Among them was Fernandes, a 21-year-old Brazilian au pair who was dressed as a leprechaun. They persuaded him to come along to the bar. At the end of the night, Bujas got Fernandes' number.

The timing felt serendipitous.

Until it wasn't.

Soon after, Bujas' mother was diagnosed with a fatal neurological disease. He withdrew from law school. She passed away.

"It was a very difficult time for me and my family," Bujas said. "I wasn't dating, I wasn't doing anything."

Fernandes' phone number went untouched for three months. But one night Bujas, feeling sad and too alone with his thoughts, decided he needed to go out. So he sent Fernandes a text message and signed it "Felipe Massa," which is the only reason she remembered who he was.

Their first date began at a bar around 7 p.m., the conversation was easy, and they wound up at the 24-hour Starbucks in Old Town, where they chatted until 7 a.m.

That's where Fernandes asked Bujas about the purple bracelet on his wrist, which read CURE CJD. He explained it stood for Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, which had killed his mom.

"Immediately her expression changed," Bujas said. "She had this understanding look on her face."

One of the reasons Fernandes had come to Chicago, in addition to learning English, was to get away after her own mother passed away. Bujas felt able to open up about the experience for the first time.

"I left feeling that I had already made a lifelong friend after a few hours," he said.

After he dropped her off at home, Fernandes said, she "felt this weird feeling. I couldn't eat or sleep; I couldn't stop shaking." And it wasn't from drinking coffee all night. "I think I was just really excited."

But Fernandes was due to go back to Brazil in a year, where she was going to school to become a midwife. Neither wanted to get serious knowing it would end. So they kept it casual and fun, seeing each other once a week or so, until gradually it became more frequent, and their attachment, slowly and constantly, grew.

It took a long time for either to say I love you. Bujas didn't introduce Fernandes to his family for 11 months.

A month later, she was on an airplane to Sao Paulo, crying the whole way there.

They agreed to try to make it work. But it got harder. After five months, Bujas went to Brazil for a two-week visit. Another heart-wrenching goodbye.

A week after Bujas returned to Chicago, they broke up, the pressure and uncertainty of the distance too great.

Now it was Bujas who couldn't eat or sleep. "I was faced with the biggest decision of my life," he said. "If I really wanted to be with Aline, I needed to show my commitment and make it happen."