Johanna: Facing Forward

Johanna wriggled into a silky emerald-colored dress with a plunging neckline and sparkly silver accents.

The dress slid down her depleted frame, leaving her modest white bra exposed and the dress hanging off her hips.

Months ago, before Johanna was shot by her ex-boyfriend, she bought a long brown dress to wear to prom. It still hung in the department store bag in her closet.

Nobody -- including Johanna -- thought she would be in shape to go to Lincoln-West High's prom by May 19.

When Johanna heard her friends talk about their plans for the night, it hurt. Johanna decided that nobody was going to take the moment from her. She needed good memories -- even if imperfect -- to combat the bad ones.

But a different Johanna needed a different dress.

And with a few weeks to go, she was searching -- again -- for the perfect gown.

Johanna complained that the dress she was wearing had a slit up the left side, exposing the knotty scar on her leg.

"They won't be looking at your leg," her younger cousin Cathy, a pert girl with a ponytail, told her.

"Yes they will," Johanna worried.

"Well, punch them in the face then," Cathy retorted.

Downstairs, a teacher who was tutoring Johanna as she caught up on her schoolwork waited for her opinion. Bob Duesing, a polo-shirt-wearing science teacher, had become her personal shopper.

It was difficult for Johanna to go out because she attracted attention wherever she went. She felt warmed that people cared. But Johanna was also weirded out about how many people knew details of the personal things that had happened.

Johanna was also tired of the TV cameras that stalked her. Some television reporters tried to bribe her for interviews.

Even Oprah invited Johanna to be a guest.

To avoid the gawking, Johanna searched for prom styles on the Internet and in magazines and Duesing brought similar dresses for her to try on at home.

Johanna bounded down the stairs and told her teacher she loved the emerald dress. But it needed to be a smaller size, much smaller.

Duesing got on his cell phone to the senior class adviser, the teacher whom Johanna first told about being raped, and asked for some help with the dress situation.

"She's all of 5 foot tall," he said. "And maybe 95 or so pounds. I don't know what size that is."

The teacher on the other end asked where the dress was ill-fitting, on the top or bottom.

"I don't look at any of that. Teachers get fired for that," Duesing laughed.

Duesing found a store to donate the same dress in a smaller size and her grandmother altered it perfectly.


Twist. Pin. Spray. Twist. Pin. Spray.

Michele Polodori, a stylist in cosmetology school with Johanna, worked in a relaxing pattern that was putting Johanna to sleep. She had barely slept the night before prom. Excitement -- not disturbing dreams -- had kept her awake.

Polodori eyed Johanna's orange-and-blond streaked hair before deciding on an updo.

"What is this?" Polodori asked, grabbing a chunk of hair shorter than the rest from behind Johanna's right ear.

"One of the doctors hacked it," Johanna said with a shrug. "They didn't ask me, I was asleep." Johanna thought the errant piece had been tangled with clots of blood.

Polodori blasted the piece with hair spray, enveloping Johanna's head in a fuzzy cloud.

"When will there be a trial?" Polodori asked. Johanna stiffened.

"I don't know what's happening with me and Juan and the trial," she said in the monotone she had adopted for talking about everything post-shooting.

Johanna didn't want to think about him tonight.

Long ago, she thought it would be their night.

But now it was just hers.


A white stretch Ford Expedition pulled up in front of Aunt Hilda's house shortly after Johanna returned home to get dressed about two hours before the dance.

Standing outside was a limousine driver/bodyguard who called himself Hollywood Bob. He looked like a cross between Sylvester Stallone and Beetlejuice. He had donated his limo to get Johanna to the prom and back safely.

Hilda stitched a sheath to cover the bottom of Johanna's face. She was sleepy from a night-shift factory job she took to catch up on bills that piled up after Johanna was shot.

The smooth netted material, in a sparkly teal, let only the profile of her jaw show. Two handmade straps went under her ears and tied behind her head.

The effect made her look like a genie.

Johanna took a teen named Alex, whom she had dated in the past.

Her younger cousin, Adriana, was also going with a date.

The limo snaked through the narrow streets of the cramped and aging near West Side neighborhood, making several stops for picture snapping.

Johanna and her friends lined up as digital cameras flashed and disposable cameras clicked. People stepped out of their houses, onto their porches, beaming at the group.

They all knew Johanna.

During the ride toward the Renaissance Cleveland Hotel in Public Square, Johanna's leg started hopping. She was nervous. How would people react?

The tingle in her stomach didn't last long.

As Johanna walked into the foyer of the ballroom, her classmates shrieked, enveloping her in satiny hugs. Tall boys in smooth white suits, pastel vests and matching patent leather shoes squeezed her gingerly.

As the students stood, posing glamorously and snapping pictures, Johanna turned her face, pushing her less-damaged right side toward the camera flashes. She asked people not to post pictures of her online.

Johanna bemoaned the fact she couldn't eat from the buffet -- it would be too messy and hard with the veil.

Instead, she took the time to flit from table to table, like a bride at her wedding reception.

Lincoln-West High School's support for Johanna had been tremendous.

Her friends held bake sales. Teachers paid for her cap and gown, yearbook and class ring.

The school of 1,500 students is a tight community. Students represent at least 26 nationalities and speak 54 languages.

But this year had been packed with tragedy.

One student had drowned, two died in separate car crashes. One boy died from a chronic illness and a favorite teacher died after an asthma attack.

Then Johanna.

The fact she survived, her strength, helped her traumatized senior class keep going.

As the dancing began, with bounding beats, reggaeton and R&B, Johanna disappeared onto the parquet dance floor, lost in a swirl of orange, pink and yellow dresses. Sparkles floated all around.

A little more than a month after a section of bone was plucked from her leg to form her new face, Johanna danced the cha-cha slide and the shuffle -- only stopping to pull up her sheath as it slipped down her face.

When the music slowed, she danced with her date, Alex, who watched much of the night from the sidelines. Johanna held the end of her dress in her fist as they twirled under a projection screen, flashing the faces of the Class of 2007.

She turned and stopped for a second. Her eyes locked with his.


He stared out from a picture on the screen, hunkered down in front of a group of boys, wearing a green T-shirt and a smirk.

Even now, Johanna couldn't escape his gaze.

Juan was blocks away, on the fourth floor of the Justice Center tower. His closet-size cell, with bare walls and concrete bed, is in the most dungeon-like part of the county jail. It hasn't been updated since it was built in the 1970s.

Johanna turned away from the photo and kept dancing.